Professor Myles Allen has spent thirty years studying global climate change, trying to working out what we can and can't predict. He was one of the first scientists to quantify the extent to which human actions are responsible for global warming. As a lead author on the 3rd Assessment by the International Panel on Climate Change in 2001, he concluded that ‘most of the observed global warming was due to human influence’. More recently, (having established that calculating a safe concentration of greenhouse gases was very difficult indeed), he worked out instead how many tonnes of carbon would be acceptable, a shift in emphasis that paved the way for the current Net Zero carbon emissions policy. Myles tells Jim Al-Khalili how our ability to predict climate change has evolved from the early days when scientists had to rely on the combined computing power of hundreds of thousands of personal computers. He sheds light on how the IPCC works and explains why, he believes, fossil fuel industries must be forced to take back the carbon dioxide that they emit. If carbon capture and storage technologies makes their products more expensive, so be it. Producer: Anna Buckley
Image Credit: Fisher Studios, Oxford.
Optical communications pioneer Polina Bayvel
We’ve come to expect to be connected instantly to anywhere in the world and to have unlimited information at our fingertips. We shop online, stream music, download books and boxsets onto our electronic devices. We share videos of our pets just because we can. But how much time have you spent recently thinking about the remarkable feats of engineering that make all this possible?
Polina Bayvel has been at the forefront of creating the optical fibre networks that are capable of transporting vast quantities of data from one place to another: linking continents via cables laid under oceans or enabling computer systems in data centres to share information. Without these high speed networks, ultra-fast high-capacity broadband will remain a dream. Polina tells Jim Al Khalili how she moved to the UK from the Soviet Union when she was 12 and worked in industry for many years, before deciding that she wanted to set up a lab to find out what optical fibres were capable of: just how much data could they transport, and how fast?
Producer: Anna Buckley
2019 Nobel Prize winner for Physiology or Medicine, Sir Peter Ratcliffe
Sir Peter Ratcliffe, Director of Clinical Research at the Francis Crick Institute, as well as Director of Oxford University’s Target Discovery Institute – has dedicated his life to understanding the body’s molecular-level response to low oxygen levels, or ‘hypoxia’. He received the 2019 Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine, along with two Americans, William Kaelin of Harvard and Gregg Semenza of Johns Hopkins, for successfully tackling one of physiology’s greatest puzzles - how our bodies sense and adapt so quickly to a lack of oxygen, at high altitude for example, or during sudden exercise.
He talks to Jim about how his early medical career led him into a deeply unfashionable area of medicine that would solve how and why our bodies are so clever at being able to fine tune themselves to keep functioning under a range of conditions. His early ground breaking discoveries may have been initially turned down by a major scientific journal, but he would go on to pave the way for promising new strategies to fight anaemia and many other challenging diseases, most notably cancer.
Producer Adrian Washbourne
Peter Fonagy on a revolution in mental health care
Peter Fonagy arrived in the UK from Hungary aged 15, not speaking a word of English. His family was in Paris. He was bullied at school, failed every exam and thought of ending his life. Therapy saved him, he says. Years later, he trained to be a clinical psychologist and then a psychoanalyst. His research on attachment styles between a mother and her baby (which can be healthy, anxious or avoidant) was ground breaking. He went on to show that the human need to be understood runs very deep indeed. The ability to ‘mentalise’ (to say that we’re feeling angry rather than being angry, for example) enables us to understand our own thoughts and feelings. And, Peter believes, it forms the cornerstone of good mental health. He pioneered a new way of treating people with borderline personality disorder which he called mentalisation based treatment, or MBT. Shocked to discover that such a simple approach was so effective, he set up randomised control trials to prove the effectiveness of this new approach to mental health care. The results were a revelation and it led to a revolution in mental health care for patients with a wide range of mental health problems, from borderline personality disorder to drug dependency, eating disorders and psychosis.
Producer: Anna Buckley
Susannah Maidment on stegosaurs
Susie was dinosaur-mad as a child. But unlike most children, she never grew out of her obsession. She tells Jim about an exciting new stegosaur find in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and describes the time she spent dinosaur hunting (with a toddler in tow) in the Morrison Formation in the American Mid-West: a place where there are thought to be enough dinosaur remains to keep a thousand paleontologists happy for a thousand years.
She is at her happiest out in the field, with a hammer and a notebook, studying rocks and looking for dinosaur remains. We tend to lump dinosaurs together as though they all roamed the earth at the same time which is silly - given that they had the run of the place for nearly two hundred million years. Susie wants to sort out exactly which dinosaurs lived when. Although she warns, the fossil record is woefully incomplete. We will probably only ever know about 1% of what there is to know about all the dinosaurs that ever lived.
Producer: Anna Buckley