Good Science: Great Radio

I’ve buried my head in the sand a little of late… It is autumn after all – time for sleeping, eating and hibernating. Or in my case, getting my fusty woolies out of an old suitcase.

Other than donning moth-eaten knits, I have been busy organising a free masterclass in Cambridge on Weds 18 November, in which I hope to bridge the sciences and the world of media.

Making a programme that talks about, say, the inner workings of quantum physics that also makes sense is no easy feat. So, experienced radio and podcast practitioners will be telling the back story to some of the best science programmes around to try and get to grips with precisely this.

We’ll also be discussing whether science is more than just reporting, what it takes to be a leading science presenter, and how to get your ideas out there.

And for those budding scientists, we’ll also be unpacking what makes a great guest with a specially recorded contribution from The Life Scientific’s Jim Al-Khalili, who straddles the world of research and broadcast journalism.

Speakers include: the Head of BBC Radio 4 Science Unit Deborah CohenToby Murcott, scientist and broadcaster for Radio 4Naked Scientist and pop-sci writer Kat ArneyCambridge University Astronomer Carolin Crawford and award-winning science broadcaster Sue Nelson.

You can see further event details here and I’ll post a link to the podcast later, as it’ll be all recorded. Pre-book tickets here.

My Bicycle

Love is something that shapes character and evolves over time into a broad, all-encompassing connection. And what do I love? My bicycle.

I love my bicycle because it represents freedom and independence to go wherever, whenever. And why my bicycle in particular? It’s a Claud Butler Summer Bay – an 18 tooth, single speed, free-wheel, steel quill of a bike – in other words, it’s beautiful. It has little tan leather handle bars, a rather comfy spring loaded seat and a ‘lady’ frame, complete with a basket and a dinger. I’m never happier than when I’m riding my bicycle.

Since autumn has overrun, my housemate, Hannah, and I decided to explore a little bit of south Manchester. Cycle we did – all the way along the old shipping canals around east Didsbury, up onto the rocky levees and alongside the glistening River Irwell.

hannah bicycle

Although it may have glistening in the sunlight, it was sadly strewn with trees ripped from their banks laying in the middle of channel, shrouded in litter. No fish swam, no otters meowed; the ducks however quacked to their hearts content, happy at not having to share this part of the river with anything else. It smelt like the River Thames, a comforting smell for me, but the Thames is supposed to be one of the cleanest rivers around, unlike Irwell. Eight hundred years ago, when the hamlet of Kersal in the township of Broughton, which now forms part of the City of Salford, was handed over as a gift to the Cluniac monastary of Lenton, near Nottingham – the most important part of the gift was the fishing rights in the River Irwell. Again in the 19th century, Irwell was vital in facilitating Manchester’s industrial revolution, but at what cost to its inhabitants? Although the council boasts the River Irwell being its ‘cleanest’ in decades with roach and perch being caught, I’m a little sceptical, especially with the hard management defences used – how does this support migration of fish stocks or any wildlife for that matter?

Nevertheless, Hannah and I sat down with a mini-picnic of bakewell tarts and enjoyed the sound of gushing water. It was a beautiful day, and we couldn’t help but show our affections for our beloved bicycles and here are the photos to prove our undying ‘commitment’ to them!

Dark Matter: A Massive Mystery

Are we on the verge of solving one of the longest standing puzzles in physics?

Physicists think we’re close to discovering the identity of Dark Matter, the mysterious, invisible substance that accounts for nearly a quarter of the mass of Universe. So how will scientists see it, and why does its discovery matter? Naked Scientists Graihagh Jackson and Chris Smith find out…


Broadcast: June 2015

Why leaves go brown

I have to say that the onset of autumn not only turns trees golden, but also sets something off in my body clock. I become all lethargic (like I should soon be dropping into hibernation like the hedgehogs), and crave warmth (the shower notch gets cranked up a few points).  I feel like drinking mulled wine every night and find myself wishing I could buy firework-scented incenses. I think it’s plant life that sends my body in seasonal overdrive, perhaps a 6th sense.

I always wondered what it was that made leaves change colour and my question was answered on autumn watch. So I shall share my bit of science for the week with you all, and will know that you’ve learnt something new today.

Autumn leaves catching the evening sun
Autumn leaves catching the evening sun

You may have heard of a beautiful thing called photosynthesis. Funnily enough I only know how to spell this word because of my best friend in year 3. I asked him what his favourite word was, and he responded plainly it was ‘photosynthesis – duh!’ All I can say is it was way beyond my vocabulary back then! Now I know that photosynthesis is a chemical reaction between carbon dioxide, water and sunlight aided by chlorophyll that produces glucose and oxygen. It’s this very chlorophyll that give leaves their green colour.

As winter approaches, the days get shorted and less light is available for photosynthesis. The plant, recognising this, packs up for winter and the chlorophyll breaks down and isn’t regenerated. The remaining pigments in the plant (carotenoids and anthocyanins), that are usually hidden by the dominant chlorophyll, are revealed, adorning the landscape with nature’s autumn canvas.

Each species has a different trigger as to when they suck out the chlorophyll and turn their leaves ruby red and therefore, the landscape is speckled not only with different stages autumn but also with different palettes of colour as every species has its own special tint. All bow down to Mother Nature…

The brilliance of taxidermy

I used to have the view that taxidermy was slightly creepy – who would have thought to kill, take out the innards of some unsuspecting creature, stuff it and lather preservatives on it? But more recently I have open my eyes to it on the concept that it’s not as brutal as I originally though: I’ve started to think about it more as an art, an important medium of natural history and research as well as of great historical importance. I can assume the basics of taxidermy but I’ve always wondered the finer details like how to position it, and what happens to its eyes.

I know the Natural History Museum in Manchester has an absolutely fabulous behind the scenes collection of a plethora of species. They even encourage people to bring in birds (to report their ring number) in return for a stuffing lesson and a little taxidermy delight – the very bird you brought in.

In the Victorian days, taxidermy was popular: upper class women use to have little birds in their hats. These very upper class women were also the taxidermists. They clearly weren’t too dainty and faint-hearted as often depicted in period dramas after all!

I personally like the moose the best...
A selection of taxidermy items at Deyrolle Museum, Paris

Today though, certainly in my eyes, there is a sense of mystery surrounding the topic. On a recent trip to Paris, I was lucky enough to visit Deyrolle on Rue de Bac. It used to be a party hangout for Parisian artists like Picasso, who would drink absinthe and dance amongst the stuffed tigers and oxen. However, in 2008, the building was burnt to a crisp and along with it went the animals. The French were so distressed by the situation, seeing it as a great piece of French history and culture, that public donated work they’d bought from Deyrolle to restock it. Now stands a fantastic collection of curiosities from crustaceans and skeletons to large mammals and an abundance of brilliant beetles and butterflies. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed in the museum but I have found a few which best depict Deyrolle.

And the winner is…

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to be a judge on a photography competition – all photographers where scientists, documenting their work.

There were over 150 images to view judge and only five categories. Some had documented some incredible breakthroughs in science whilst others had presented a series of beautiful images and finding that balance between the two was tough but I think we chose wel…

The competition featured in the Guardian and the full set of images can be found on flickr.


Paul May - March of the TriffidsPaul May – March of the Triffids

Carbon nanotubes are tiny tubular cylinders of carbon atoms with extraordinarily mechanical, electrical, thermal, optical and chemical properties. In their lab University of Bristol researchers are making these nanotubes even more special by putting a coating of diamond onto them.


Rachel Pallan EPSRCRachel Pallan – The finer details of life

We are a nation intrigued by body image, but do we really know what we look like on the inside? This is a section through the socket of a human hip joint showing multiple tissues merging and working together. Different types of collagen at different stages of formation can be seen in the exterior soft tissues, while porous bone provides structure in the bottom of the image.

EPSRC Jonathan RickardJonathan Rickard – We all fall down

Thin films are ubiquitous, both in nature and in the man-made world. When we blink, tears form a film which spreads over the eye, making the surface smooth and optically clear and enabling good vision.

University of Birmingham researchers are exploring an alternative way to form thin-film-based structures by using strong electric fields, which induce electrohydrodynamic (EHD) instabilities. The EHD technique is more practical, reliable and robust than conventional techniques, and enables the precise control of the way the film destabilises – crucial to the production process.

Portfolio & blog of a radio producer