Explorations in the world of science.


London, United Kingdom




Explorations in the world of science.




The Life Scientific: Michael Woolridge

Humans have a long-held fascination with the idea of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a dystopian threat - from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, through to the Terminator movies. But somehow, we still often think of this technology as 'futuristic', whereas in fact, it's already woven into the fabric of our daily lives, from facial recognition software to translator apps. And if we get too caught up in the entertaining sci-fi narrative around AI and the potential threat from machines, there is a more pressing danger that we overlook real and present concerns - from deep fakes to electoral disinformation. Michael Wooldridge is determined to demystify AI and explain how it can improve our lives, in a whole host of different ways. A professor of Computer Science at the University of Oxford, and the director of Foundational AI Research at the Alan Turing Institute, Mike believes the most common fears around this technology are "misplaced". In a special 300th edition of The Life Scientific, recorded in front of an audience at London's Royal Institution (RI), Mike tells Jim al-Khalili how he will use this year's prestigious RI Christmas Lectures to lift the lid on modern AI technology and discuss how far it could go in future. Mike also reminiscences about the days when sending an email was a thrilling novelty, discusses why people love talking to him about the Terminator at parties, and is even challenged to think up a novel future use of AI by ChatGPT. Presenter: Jim al-Khalili Producer: Lucy Taylor Audio editor: Sophie Ormiston Production co-ordinator: Jonathan Harris


The Life Scientific: Mercedes Maroto-Valer

How do you solve a problem like CO2? As the curtain closes on the world’s most important climate summit, we talk to a scientist who was at COP 28 and is working to solve our carbon dioxide problem. Professor Mercedes Maroto-Valer thinks saving the planet is still Mission Possible - but key to success is turning excess of the climate-busting gas, carbon dioxide, into something useful. And as Director of the Research Centre for Carbon Solutions at Heriot-Watt University and the UK’s Decarbonisation Champion, she has lots of innovative ideas on how to do this. She also has a great climate-themed suggestion for what you should say when someone asks your age… Presenter: Jim Al-Khalili Producer: Gerry Holt Audio editor: Sophie Ormiston Production Co-ordinator: Jonathan Harris


The Life Scientific: Sir Harry Bhadeshia

The Life Scientific zooms in to explore the intricate atomic make-up of metal alloys, with complex crystalline arrangements that can literally make or break structures integral to our everyday lives. Professor Sir Harry Bhadeshia is Professor of Metallurgy at Queen Mary University of London and Emeritus Tata Steel Professor of Metallurgy at the University of Cambridge. He’s been described as a ‘steel innovator’ – developing multiple new alloys with a host of real-world applications, from rail tracks to military armour. Harry’s prolific work in the field has earned him widespread recognition and a Knighthood; but it's not always been an easy ride... From his childhood in Kenya and an enforced move to the UK as a teenager, to the years standing up to those seeking to discredit the new path he was forging in steel research - Jim Al-Khalili discovers that Harry's achievements have required significant determination, as well as hard work. Presenter: Jim Al-Khalili Producer: Lucy Taylor Audio editor: Sophie Ormiston Production Co-ordinator: Jonathan Harris


The Life Scientific: Cathie Sudlow

“Big data” and “data science” are terms we hear more and more these days. The idea that we can use these vast amounts of information to understand and analyse phenomena, and find solutions to problems, is gaining prominence, both in business and academia. Cathie Sudlow, Professor of Neurology and Clinical Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, has been at the forefront of enabling health-related research using ever-increasing datasets. She tells presenter Jim Al-Khalili why this type of research matters and how the COVID-19 pandemic changed attitudes towards data in healthcare. Over the course of her career, Cathie has held a variety of roles at different organisations, and she is currently Chief Scientist and Deputy Director at Health Data Research UK. She believes that there is no room for prima donnas in science, and wants her field to be open and collaborative, to have the most impact on patients’ lives. Presenter: Jim Al-Khalili Producer: Florian Bohr Production Co-ordinator: Jonathan Harris


The Life Scientific: Sir Michael Berry

Professor Jim Al-Khalili meets one of Britain's greatest physicists, Sir Michael Berry. His work uncovers 'the arcane in the mundane', revealing the science that underpins phenomena in the world around us such as rainbows, and through his popular science lectures he joyfully explains the role of quantum mechanics in phones, computers and the technology that shapes the modern world. He is famed for the 'Berry phase' which is a key concept in quantum mechanics and one Sir Michael likes to explain through an analogy of holding a cat upside down and dropping it, or parallel parking a car. Presenter: Jim Al-Khalili Studio Producer: Tom Bonnett Audio Editor: Gerry Holt Production Co-ordinator: Jonathan Harris


The Life Scientific: Sarah Harper

People around the world are living longer and, on the whole, having fewer children. What does this mean for future populations? Sarah Harper CBE, Professor in Gerontology at the University of Oxford, tells presenter Jim Al-Khalili how it could affect pensions, why it might mean we work for longer, and discusses the ways modern life is changing global attitudes to when we have children, and whether we have them at all. Fertility and ageing have been Sarah's life's work and she tells her story of giving up a career in the media to carry out in-depth research, and going on to study population change in the UK and China, setting up the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing and later becoming a Scientific Advisor to UK Government. Presenter: Jim Al-Khalili Producer: Tom Bonnett Production Co-ordinator: Jonathan Harris


The Life Scientific: Sarah Blaffer Hrdy

Our primate cousins fascinate us, with their uncanny similarities to us. Studying other apes and monkeys also helps us figure out the evolutionary puzzle of what makes us uniquely human. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s work brings a female perspective to this puzzle, correcting sexist stereotypes like the aggressive, philandering male and the coy, passive female. Sarah is professor emerita of anthropology at the University of California, Davis, and studies female primate behaviour to create a richer picture of our evolutionary history, as well as what it means to be a woman or a parent today. Her overarching aim is to understand the human condition, a goal she initially planned to pursue by writing novels. Instead, she found her way into science: her ground-breaking study of infanticide among langur monkeys in northern India overturned assumptions about these monkeys’ murderous motivations. Later in her career, she looked into reproductive and parenting strategies across species. We humans are primed by evolution, she believes, to need a lot of support raising our children. And that is a concern she found reflected in her own life, juggling family commitments with her career ambitions as a field researcher, teacher, and science writer.


The Life Scientific: Edward Witten

The Life Scientific returns with a special episode from the USA; Princeton, New Jersey, to be precise. Here, the Institute for Advanced Study has hosted some of the greatest scientific minds of our time - Einstein was one of its first professors, J. Robert Oppenheimer its longest-serving director - and today's guest counts among them. Edward Witten is professor emeritus at the institute and the physicist behind M-Theory, a leading contender for what is commonly referred to as ‘the theory of everything’, uniting quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of gravity. He talks to Jim al-Khalili about a career that’s spanned some of the most exciting periods in modern theoretical physics - and about one particular problem that has obsessed and eluded him since his days as a student. Producer: Lucy Taylor


What's stopping us from exercising in older age?

Exercise in older age is high on the agenda, but the idea that with age comes bags of time and a desire to ‘get out there’ isn’t true for a lot of us. How do you juggle exercise around caring for partners, grandchildren or staying in work? What if you haven’t exercised for years? What can your body take, and how has it changed with age? James Gallagher hears how octogenarian athlete ‘Irongran’ keeps going, he explores the mental and physical barriers that stop us exercising and he finds out what he might feel like in 40 years as he pulls on an ageing suit. (Photo: Elderly man going for a run. Credit: Charday Penn / Getty Images)


When does sitting become bad for health?

How many hours do you spend sitting down per day? Six? Maybe eight? Or 10? Between commuting, working and relaxing, sitting can soon add up to hours and hours. James Gallagher delves into the science to find out exactly how much sitting is too much; when does it become worrying for our health? James visits a lab to explore what prolonged sitting does to the body and he’ll find out whether there’s anything you can do to offset the effects of sitting a lot. We’ll hear about the origins of sitting research - and just because we like to explore every angle on a topic, we’ll hear all about why standing too much can also be a worry. (Photo: Woman sitting at desk in office. Credit: Richard Drury / Getty Images)


Putting the Mouth Back into the Body

A look at the evidence that links the health of our mouths with the rest of our bodies.


Tooth and Claw: Cheetahs

Adam Hart investigates the fastest land animal in the world – the cheetah! Built for high-speed chases, these spotted cats are slender, with semi-retractable claws for good grip and a flexible spine plus a long tail for balance and manoeuvrability. Cheetahs rely on speed over brute strength when hunting – and can make tight, quick turns to shift course in fast pursuit of their prey. But with shrinking populations cheetahs are classified as vulnerable – so what’s being done in terms of conservation and are these projects having any success? Adam hears how cheetahs differ from lions and leopards and learns about their relationships with other predators. He looks at their unique adaptions and behaviours, as well as the different approaches that conservationists are undertaking to try and reverse the population decline. And we also hear about the re-introduction of cheetahs to India. Contributors: Professor Sarah Durant is from the Zoological Society of London and is project leader of the Africa Range-Wide Cheetah Conservation Initiative. Vincent van der Merwe is director of The Metapopulation Initiative and is cheetah metapopulation coordinator for Southern Africa and India. Presenter: Professor Adam Hart Producer: Jonathan Blackwell Editor: Holly Squire Production Coordinator: Jonathan Harris Studio Manager: Andrew Garratt (Photo: Cheetah, Credit: Paul & Paveena Mckenzie via Getty Images)


Tooth and Claw: Piranhas

Adam Hart investigates a frenzied and voracious fish from South America – the piranha! Said to be able to strip their prey to the bone in mere minutes, there are plenty of gruesome tales about the bubbling bloodbaths that occur when shoals of these hardy fish feed in the freshwaters across South America - from up in Venezuela in the Orinoco River, to the Amazon and down to the Paraná River in Argentina. What role did former United States President Theodore Roosevelt have in creating the piranha’s fearsome reputation? And is this reputation misguided? Adam hears what piranhas are really like, both in the wild and in captivity. He learns about how these fish hunt, the impact that humans are having on them and tries to establish if they really are as bloodthirsty as we’ve been led to believe. Contributors: Marcelo Ândrade is a professor at the Federal University of Maranhão in Brazil. He researches the environments that piranha live in and their behaviour, as well as plastic ingestion by piranhas. Hannah Thomas is the aquarium team manager at Chester Zoo in the UK where they care for 40 red-bellied piranhas. Presenter: Professor Adam Hart Producer: Jonathan Blackwell Editor: Holly Squire Production Coordinator: Jonathan Harris Studio Manager: Neva Missirian (Photo: Red-Bellied Piranha, Credit: Ed Reschke via Getty Images)


Tooth and Claw: Great White Sharks

Adam Hart investigates the most famous and feared predator in all the ocean – the great white shark! With rows of large, serrated teeth, it’s often thought of as a ferocious man-eater and was the villain of the film Jaws – which frightened a generation of beachgoers. This star of the silver screen may be the subject of fascination and fright for many, but is it really the ultimate predator of the ocean as Hollywood has led us to believe? Adam hears what it’s like to see these sharks up-close and in person for the very first time. He learns more about how great whites detect and hunt their prey, as well as the challenges they’ve been facing due to another ocean predator. Contributors: Dr Alison Towner is a postdoctoral researcher at Rhodes University in South Africa. She has a PhD in white shark ecology and has been studying the displacement of great whites due to orcas (killer whales) in South Africa. Professor Gavin Naylor is Director of the Florida Program for Shark Research. He is a biologist who has specialised in evolutionary and population genetics, focusing on sharks. Presenter: Professor Adam Hart Producer: Jonathan Blackwell Editor: Holly Squire Production Coordinator: Jonathan Harris Studio Manager: Jackie Margerum (Photo: Great White Shark, Credit: Todd Winner/Stocktrek Images via Getty Images)


Tooth and Claw: Wolverines

Adam Hart investigates the largest terrestrial member of the weasel family – the wolverine. They’re far more than just a superhero played by Hugh Jackman! With a reputation for gluttony and ferocity, these solitary killers use snowstorms to hunt much larger prey. Found in the snowy tundra and boreal forests of the Northern Hemisphere, their future looks uncertain – they've come into conflict with Scandinavian farmers by hunting their reindeer and are threatened by climate change in North America and Mongolia. But have we misunderstood wolverines? And can we learn to co-exist with them? Contributors: Rebecca Watters is founder and director of the Mongolian Wolverine Project, as well as the executive director of the Wolverine Foundation, a non-profit that’s dedicated to advancing science-based conservation of wolverines. Jenny Mattisson is a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, who is involved in the monitoring of wolverines in Scandinavia. She has studied interactions between wolverines and Eurasian lynx, as well as their predation of reindeer. Presenter: Professor Adam Hart Producer: Jonathan Blackwell Editor: Holly Squire Production Coordinator: Jonathan Harris Studio Manager: Donald MacDonald (Photo: Wolverine, Credit: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)


The Life Scientific: Alex Antonelli

With the world's biodiversity being lost at an alarming rate, Alexandre Antonelli, Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has made it his life's mission to protect it. He is a bio-geographer revealing how changes to the Earth's landscape, such as the formation of mountain ranges and rainforests, leads to the evolution of new species and causes plants, fungi and animals to move around the world. His work is a masterclass in joined-up thinking, bringing together different fields of research by starting conversations between scientists who would rarely talk to one another. Together, they paint a more holistic picture of how our planet's biodiversity has developed in the hope of informing how we can protect it in the future. Alex tells presenter Jim Al-Khalili about a life spent in the wild, beginning with his earliest memories of growing up in Brazil cataloguing life in the Atlantic Rainforest. That passion is still with him today. We've only scratched the surface of understanding what lives here on Earth, he says, more than 4,000 new species are found every year. Alex is passionate that we need to speed up the rate at which we document the richness of life, arguing if we don't identify what there is we can't protect it.


The Life Scientific: Paul Murdin

Astronomer Paul Murdin believes a good imagination is vital for scientists, since they're so often dealing with subjects outside the visible realm. Indeed, over a long and successful career his imagination has taken him on a journey through space, discovering various new and unusual celestial occurrences - notably the first successful identification of a black hole, Cygnus X-1. Paul tells Jim Al-Khalili how he spent much of his career at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, working with astronomers around the world on some of the most advanced telescopes ever built. He headed up the Astronomy section of the UK’s Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, was Director of Science for the British National Space Centre and even has an asteroid named after him. This list of achievements is testament to the fact that Paul has never let his disability hold him back; a leg brace and walking sticks have been part of his life since contracting polio in childhood. But he maintains that as long as you have curiosity and a vibrant imagination, nothing should stand in your way. (Photo: Paul Murdin in 1971 next to the Isaac Newton Telescope at the time of the discovery with that telescope of Cygnus X-1. Credit: Paul Murdin)


The Life Scientific: Bahija Jallal

Some of the most complex medicines available today are made from living cells or organisms - these treatments are called bio-pharmaceuticals and in this episode of The Life Scientific Dr Bahija Jallal, CEO of Immunocore, shares her story of leaving her home in Casablanca, Morocco to become a world leader in developing bio-pharmaceutical cancer treatments. She tells Professor Jim Al-Khalili that she has always found herself ahead of the curve. When she began in oncology, the study of cancer, the common treatment was chemotherapy which attacked all the cells in an affected area. Her first studies into cancer treatments were looking at how certain therapies could focus in on the cancerous cells and move away from what she describes as the 'sledgehammer' of traditional chemotherapy. It was an early step in what became known as targeted cancer therapies, and it set Bahjia on course for a career dedicated to developing innovative drugs to improve cancer patients' lives. Through a deep understanding of the science and a resolute commitment to putting treatments in the hands of people who need them, she has produced astonishing results.


The Life Scientific: Chris Barratt

Reproductive science has come a long way in recent years, but there's still plenty we don't understand - particularly around male fertility. The reliability and availability of data in this field has become more of a concern in light of a study published this year, suggesting that sperm counts worldwide have dropped 62% in the past 50 years. As yet there is no clear answer as to why that is. Professor Chris Barratt is one of the scientists working to change that. He's the Head of Reproductive Medicine at Ninewells Hospital and the University of Dundee Medical School, and has dedicated his career to better understanding male infertility; driving breakthroughs in how to study sperm dysfunctions – and most recently spearheading advances in developing a male contraceptive pill. Chris talks to Professor Jim Al-Khalili about his academic struggles as a youngster, the lecture that changed his life, his research into 'head-banging sperm' and why he believes a new male contraceptive could be a game-changer.


The Life Scientific: Gideon Henderson

We’re used to hearing the stories of scientists who study the world as it is now but what about the study of the past - what can this tell us about our future? Gideon Henderson’s research focuses on trying to understand climate change by looking at what was happening on our planet thousands of years ago. His work has taken him all around the world - to the deepest oceans and the darkest caves - where he collects samples containing radioactive isotopes which he uses as “clocks” to date past ice ages and other major climate events. As a geochemist and Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford, his work deals with the biggest questions, like our impact on the carbon cycle and climate, the health of our oceans, and finding new ways to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. But in his role as Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he also very much works on the present, at the intersection between the worlds of research and policy. He has overseen the decision to allow gene-edited food to be developed commercially in England and a UK surveillance programme to spot the Covid-19 virus in our waste-water. (Photo: Gideon Henderson. Credit: Gideon Henderson)