MOSAiC Arctic super-expedition, Likely extinction of the Bahama nuthatch, Tim Smedley's book on air pollution
On Friday, 20 September, a powerful icebreaker called The Polarstern will set sail from Tromsø, Norway, with the aim of getting stuck into the polar ice. The plan is for the ship to spend the next year drifting past the North Pole, and this should enable scientists to collect unprecedented data on the Arctic. The Polarstern is the ‘mothership’ of a substantial international collaboration called the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (or project MOSAiC). Scientists from over seventy research institutions across 19 different countries are involved, and a total of six hundred experts will be aboard throughout the expedition. They plan to construct a ‘research city’ around the vessel with different neighbourhoods, each focused on a particular scientific area including: ecosystem, bio-geo-chemistry, ocean, atmosphere and sea ice. Adam spoke to UCL’s Professor Julienne Stroeve, who will be aboard The Polarstern for two months during the Arctic winter, looking at the depth and density of snow in order to improve our understanding of the Arctic, and enhance our ability to predict effects of global climate change.
The residents of the Bahamas are still struggling to come to terms with the devastation of Hurricane Dorian (which hit 2 weeks ago) and also with the additional impact of Tropical Storm Humberto which reached the islands on Friday night, bringing more heavy rain and more strong winds. But the human population is resilient and they will eventually rebuild and resume their lives on the Caribbean islands. But for the Bahama nuthatch, it’s thought that Dorian was the final straw. The endemic bird, is (or was) one of the rarest birds in the western hemisphere, in fact it was already thought extinct (after the damage wrought by Hurricane Mathew in June 2016) until last year when Professor Diana Bell and her team of conservationists from the University of East Anglia rediscovered it. But now, after the hurricane it is feared lost forever, and it may not be the only irreversible ecological loss for the Bahamas.
Tim Smedley's book 'Cleaning the Air: The Beginning and End of Air Pollution' is shortlisted for the Royal Society's science book prize. Tim tells the full story of air pollution: what it is, which pollutants are harmful, and where they come from. It's scary stuff, but there is good news that air pollution can be avoided and drastically reduced with sensible measures.
Producer - Fiona Roberts
Model embryos from stem cells, Paul Steinhardt's book on impossible crystals, Mother Thames
One of the most fundamental developmental stages we humans go through is extremely poorly understood. The first few days of the embryo, once it's been implanted in the womb is incredibly hard to study. Yet it's the time when the majority of pregnancies fail. Professor Magdalena Zernika-Goetz at Cambridge University is a leader in the field of making 'model embryos' in both mice and humans. Model embryos until now have been grown in the lab from donated fertilised eggs, but these are hard to come by and governed by strict laws and ethical guidelines. Now researchers in the University of Michigan have used human pluripotent stem cell lines (originally isolated from embryos, but kept and nurtured as clumps of dividing cells in petri-dishes for many years) to make a model embryo that has shown signs of development and organisation in the crucial 7-10 day window. Magdalena and Gaia Vince discuss how helpful these will be to understanding crucial early stage pregnancies and as a tool to test drugs, treatments and disease processes. The ethical side of growing human embryos from stem cells is addressed by Stanford University ethicist Professor Hank Greely.
Physicist Paul Steinhardt has spent a great deal of his career trying to understand crystals with seemingly impossible five fold symmetries. Most of this was with pen and pencil in his Princeton laboratory. But in his Royal Society Science Book Prize shortlisted book, 'The Second Kind of Impossible', he documents his adventurous quest for these 'quasicrystals' in the wilds of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsular.
In 1957 the River Thames was so polluted it was declared ecologically dead. But since then The Zoological Society of London in partnership with over 30 conservation and research organisations have been working to improve the health of the River Thames and bring back the plethora of life and biodiversity. They are set to publish the first complete analysis of the river in over 60 years this Autumn. They're calling it 'Mother Thames' in recognition of the now nurturing nature of one of Britain's biggest rivers.
Presenter - Gaia Vince
Producer - Fiona Roberts
Inventing GPS, Carbon nanotube computer, Steven Strogatz and Monty Lyman discuss calculus and skin
Global Positioning System, or GPS is perhaps the best known of the satellite navigation systems, helping us find our way every day. Back in the 1970's Bradford Parkinson and Hugo Fruehauf were two of the inventors who miniaturised atomic clocks and launched them in Earth orbit satellites. This was part of the US Department of Defense's plan to track ships and aircraft and guide targeted missiles. In the intervening years, Brad and Hugo had no idea just how far the civilian applications of GPS would go. Alongside Richard Schwartz and James Spilker, they have just been awarded the prestigious the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.
The age of silicon chip based computing could be coming to an end. Difficulties in shrinking silicon transistors, or switches, into ever smaller processors led researchers at MIT to search for alternative semiconducting materials to replace them. Cue carbon nanotubes, tubes of carbon atoms many tens of thousands of times narrower than a human hair. Electrical engineer Max Shulaker and his team have overcome spaghetti-like tangles of CNTs and varying levels of conductivity to create a 16bit processor. He says that rather than a straight forward replacement to silicon, the initial hope is that CNT chip technology can be added to existing silicon wafers.
Steven Strogatz and Monty Lyman have been shortlisted for the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize this year.
In "Infinite Powers", Professor of applied maths at Cornell University, Steven Strogatz tells Adam Rutherford the story of calculus and why his book has a warning saying "this book is dangerous, it will make you love mathematics!" And in "The Remarkable Life of the Skin" Dr. Monty Lyman takes Claudia Hammond on an intimate journey across our surface. They discuss advances in skin treatments, new research on the importance of our diet and our skin and the vital role our largest organ plays in our lives.
Producer - Fiona Roberts
Presenter - Gareth Mitchell
Amazon fires, Royal Society Book Prize shortlist announced, John Gribben on quantum physics
Satellite data has shown an 85% increase in the number of fires across Brazil this year. There are more than 2,500 fires active across the Amazon region. This represents the most active number of fires since 2010. The increase in fires has been attributed to deliberate deforestation and clearing for agriculture or mining. The new president of Brazil, Jair Bolsanaro, supports the commercialisation of the Amazon forest and this is said to have encouraged the wide scale burning. Professor of Earth System Science at the University of California Irvine, Jim Randerson and Luiz Aragão of Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research are just two scientists concerned about the destruction and carbon emissions from the extensive burning.
The 6 shortlisted books have been announced in the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize this year. Judges Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt, a computer scientist and best-selling author Dorothy Koomson run through the list:
Infinite Powers – Steven Strogatz
The Remarkable Life of the Skin – Monty Lyman
Clearing the Air – Tim Smedley
Invisible Women – Caroline Criado Perez
The Second Kind of Impossible – Paul Steinhardt
Six Impossible Things – John Gribbin
Science writer and journalist John Gribben takes Gareth through the world of quantum physics when he discusses his book "Six Impossible Things - The Quanta of Solace and the Mysteries of the Subatomic World"
Producer - Fiona Roberts
UK's black squirrels' genetic heritage; nuclear fusion in the UK and the Royal Society's science book prize
Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to spot the uncommon black grey squirrel in the UK. The bizarre mutation that causes a change in fur colour has finally divulged its historic evolution. Dr Helen McRobie at Anglia Ruskin University studies the black version of the introduced grey squirrel. She explains to Gareth Mitchell how the grey squirrel might have got the genetic mutation for black fur back when it was in North America. She describes how she stumbled across a finding that questions how we define a species.
Nuclear fusion – it’s the energy source of the future, and always will be! Yes, it’s one of those technologies that was about thirty years away in the 1980s when they built a massive fusion lab in Culham in Oxfordshire. And, thirty years on, they’re still trying to crack it. Part of the challenge is building containers that can handle some of the hottest, and trickiest, matter known to humans – plasma. At the Joint European Torus (or JET), they’ve been busy revamping their thirty-five-year-old kit. It’s to keep the fusion research going whilst the scientists wait for a shiny new facility to open up in Southern France. It’s all about working on reactions like those that fuel the Sun – squashing atoms together rather than pulling them apart. A brand new series of landmark tests at JET is kicking off in the months ahead. Roland Pease went to the labs to find out just where the UK is in fusion right now.
The 2019 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize winner will be announced in late September. The shortlisted authors will be announced next week but before then Adam Rutherford chats to two of the judges, Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt, and best selling fiction author, Dorothy Koomson, about what makes a great popular science book and what in particular the judges are looking for in this year’s competition.
Producer - Fiona Roberts