Ebola, Zika, Sars, Mers - rarely a week goes by without a deadly virus stealing the headlines.
For Jonathan Ball, getting to know a virus at its most basic level is crucial to mounting a defence. As the son of a coal miner, who grew up in a mining village in the 1970s, a future in academic research studying deadly viruses wasn’t really on the agenda.
Yet his work has led him to the forefront of scientific research to find the antibodies that can protect us from some of the nastiest diseases known to humankind.
As Professor of Virology at Nottingham University, he’s interested in how a virus evolves and mutates, as it moves from person to person, so that he can pinpoint chinks in its armour to find a way to disable it.
However, there are occupational hazards to his chosen field of work. Just when his own research was starting to show promise, another team pipped him to the post!
Yet, ever the optimist, he believes this just adds to the excitement.
Producer: Beth Eastwood
Robin Dunbar on why we have friends
Maintaining friendships is one of the most cognitively demanding things we do, according to Professor of Evolutionary Psychology Robin Dunbar. So why do we bother? Robin has spent his life trying to answer this deceptively simple question. For most of his twenties, he lived with a herd of five hundred gelada monkeys in the Ethiopian highlands. He studied their social behaviour and concluded that an ability to get on with each other was just as important as finding food, for the survival of the species. Animals that live in large groups are less likely to get eaten by predators. When funding for animal studies dried up in the 1980s, he turned his attention to humans. and discovered there’s an upper limit to the number of real friends we can have, both in the real world and on social media.
Producer: Anna Buckley
Katherine Joy on moon rock
Katherine Joy studies moon rock. She has studied lunar samples that were brought to earth by the Apollo missions (382kg in total) and hunted for lunar meteorites in Antarctica, camping on ice for weeks on end and travelling around on a skidoo. Working at the forefront of the second wave of lunar exploration, she studied remote sensing data from Europe’s first mission to the moon, Smart 1 which launched in 2003 and data from many subsequent missions. She tells Jim Al-Khalili why she believes the moon is the most exciting destination in our solar system and explains what it can tell us about the long history of planet earth.
Beneath the magnificent desolation of the moon’s surface, multicoloured rocks contain vital clues about the history of our solar system. Every crater on the moon is evidence of a collision and the chemistry of these rocks tells us when these collisions took place. Katherine’s research supports the idea that a period known as the late heavy bombardment was a particularly turbulent time. Could the late heavy bombardment explain the origin of life on earth?
Producer: Anna Buckley
DNA detective Turi King
When a skeleton was unearthed in 2012 from under the tarmac of a car park in Leicester, Turi King needed to gather irrefutable evidence to prove that this really was the body of Richard III, England's infamous medieval monarch.
Under the microscope was not only the king's genetic identity, but his entire reputation. Was Richard a ruthless villain, as depicted by Shakespeare? Or did the incoming Tudors spread 'fake news' to besmirch his name? As Jim discovers, clues in his skeletal remains have helped to solve some of these mysteries, and reveal the real Richard III.
When she was young, Turi King wanted to be the next Indiana Jones. Her love of archaeology led her to study genetics so she could use ancient DNA to solve historic mysteries.
She tells Jim how genetic testing, of both the dead skeleton and his living relatives, provided the vital evidence they needed to identify Richard III. But first, she had to extract his DNA, by pulling out one of his teeth.
Producer: Michelle Martin
Main image: Turi King
Credit: Jonathan Sisson
Ewine van Dishoeck on cosmic chemistry
Ewine van Dishoeck has spent her life studying the space between the stars. Not so long ago, interstellar space was thought to be an empty, sterile void. The idea that there would be organic molecules in interstellar clouds was absurd. Ewine, however, has revealed that there are some astonishingly sophisticated organic molecules in space. The molecules that are needed to form the building blocks of life were formed long before planets emerged from these swirling clouds of interstellar dust. Jim talks to Ewine, winner of the 2018 Kavli Prize for Astrophysics, about quantum chemistry, astronomy and why we need to keep building telescopes. Do Ewine’s discoveries make it more likely that we will find life elsewhere in the universe?
Producer: Anna Buckley
Main Image: Ewine van Dishoeck receiving the Kavli Prize in astrophysics, 4 September 2018 in Oslo. Credit: Berit Roald / NTB SCANPIX / AFP) / Norway