Soils and floods, Air pollution and ultra-low emission zones, detecting the drug Spice
The UK's soils are the first line of defence against flooding, but the condition of the soil is vital to how well it can soak up and slowly release rainwater. Jane Rickson, Professor of soil erosion and conservation at Cranfield University, explains to Adam what makes a healthy soil and what farmers can do to try to prevent floods.
"Spice" is a catch-all phrase for a large variety of psycho-active compounds - commonly called legal highs. They interact with the same receptors in the brain as cannabis does. They're commonly sold sprayed onto common herbs that users smoke, so that dose, as well as variety and purity are completely uncontrolled by the time they're taken. And that's where the problems start in A&E departments and the blue-light services, because patients can show up with severe symptoms of psychosis with little clue as to what's caused it. And until now there's been no quick and easy test. Roland Pease went to Bath University where biochemist Chris Pudney and his team have developed some portable kit using ultraviolet to throw light on the spice users are smoking.
The Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) was brought in in London in April 2019 to improve air quality in the centre of the city. In 2020 cities including Bath, Leeds and Birmingham are also bringing in ‘Clean Air Zones. Alastair Lewis is professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of York and he explains what these schemes are targeting and whether we can measure whether they are working.
Producer: Fiona Roberts
Fracking moratorium; Bloodhound; Big Compost Experiment; transit of Mercury
The Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced an indefinite moratorium this week on mining of shale gas by hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, in the UK, citing fears of earthquakes and seismic activity caused by fracking in the past. In August this year, a 2.9 magnitude earthquake was recorded at the Preston New Road fracking site in Lancashire, which prompted an immediate shutdown, as required by the strict protocols that we have in place. Adam Rutherford talks to Dr James Verdon, a geophysicist at Bristol University and a co-author of one of the Oil & Gas Authority studies on the Preston New Road, about the science of fracking.
Bloodhound is the latest British attempt at the supersonic land speed record. All this week Wing Commander Andy Green has been burning across a dried out lake in the Kalahari Desert, as he and his team are building up to break the sound barrier at 740mph, and his own land speed record of 763 mph. BBC science correspondent Jonathan Amos reports from the trackside.
The Big Compost Experiment is a new citizen science project about the wonderful, rich, fruity and essential substance you can produce by doing not that much at all. Architect Danielle Purkiss and Mark Miodownik, material scientist at UCL tell Adam why they are launching this experiment.
The planet Mercury, messenger of the Gods, passes between us and the Sun on average just thirteen times a century. This astronomical event will be visible in the UK – weather permitting – next Monday, 11th November. Solar physicist Lucie Green explains how to see the transit of Mercury.
African genomes sequenced; Space weather; sports head injuries
Since the human genome was first sequenced nearly 20 years ago, around a million people have had theirs decoded, giving us new insights into the links between genes, ancestry and disease. But most of the genomes studied have been in people of European descent. Now a decade-long collaboration between scientists in the UK and in Uganda has created the largest African genome dataset to date. Dr Deepti Gurdasani discusses her research with Gaia Vince.
After 7 years of orbiting the Earth and sending us important information about space weather, NASA’s Van Allen Probes are retiring. Professor Lucie Green from UCL explains how the sun can spit out superhot plasma and streams of high energy particles in our direction. We are mostly protected by the Earth’s magnetic field - but not always. The worst-case scenario is that the radiation could disrupt navigation satellites and bring down electrical power supplies. Professor Green will be keeping an eye on space weather with a new spacecraft.
Growing evidence shows that repeatedly getting your head knocked around during competitive sports can lead to long-term serious consequences. The head doesn’t necessarily need to be the target of the blow – a hard tackle can ricochet through your body giving your head a jolt. Roland Pease speaks with sports scientist Liz Williams of Swansea University about a new device to measure these impacts.
Presenter: Gaia Vince
Producers: Jen Whyntie and Louisa Field
Organic farming emissions; Staring at seagulls; Salt and dementia
Switching to 100% organic food production in England and Wales would see an overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Although going fully organic would produce fewer direct emissions than conventional farming, researchers say it would limit food production. Making up the shortfall with imports from overseas would increase overall emissions. But is the sustainability of our food production about more than greenhouse gas emissions alone? Professor Dave Reay is Chair in Carbon Management & Education at the University of Edinburgh, and has recently acquired a smallholding in Scotland. He discusses the study and answer your questions about sustainable food and population growth.
Seagulls have become notorious food thieves in recent times as they move into towns to find new habitats and sustenance. Scientists at the University of Exeter have found that if you stare at a herring gull, it’s much less likely to steal your chips. Reporter Graihagh Jackson went to Falmouth to meet with researchers Madeleine Goumas and Neeltje Boogert to see the tactic in action.
More than 800,000 people in the UK live with dementia, which is an umbrella term for over 200 specific diagnoses that all involve some form of neurodegeneration. Epidemiological evidence has suggested that high dietary salt intake may somehow be linked to developing cognitive impairment. A study released this week shows a mechanism for how this might occur biologically in the brains of mice who were fed a high salt diet. Professor Carol Brayne is Director of the Cambridge Institute of Public Health at the University of Cambridge, and she explains how this new research fits into the field and our understanding of dementia’s causes.
Ebola model, Partula snails, Malaria origin
Zoonotic diseases are infections that transfer from animals to people, and include killers such as bubonic plague, malaria, ebola and a whole host of others. Trying to understand how diseases make the leap from animals to humans – so called spillover – and how outbreaks occur is a crucial part of preventing them. But outbreaks are complex and dynamic, with a huge number of factors playing a role: What animal is hosting the disease, the environment in which it lives, the changing climate, human presence and impact on the local area and many other factors. Kate Jones is professor of ecology and biodiversity at University College London, and has been tracking ebola in Africa. Her team has just published a new study that models how and when spillover might happen in the future.
On the lushly forest islands of French Polynesia, there lives a very special snail. Partula are around 100 species of tiny snails who give birth to live young and feed on decomposing plants. Each species is uniquely adapted to a particular ecological niche. But in 1967, the highly edible Giant African Land Snail was introduced to the islands as a source of food. They quickly became pests, and in response, the French Polynesian government then introduced carnivorous Rosy Wolf Snails - aka Euglandina rosea - to quell the spread of the introduced Giant Land snails. Reporter Naomi Clements-Brode picks up the story with scientist Ann Clarke, along with Dave Clarke and Paul Pearce-Kelly at ZSL London Zoo.
Finally this week, malaria is, as best we can account for it, the single greatest killer in human history. The vast majority of malaria is caused by a type of single celled protozoan called Plasmodium falciparum, carried by mosquitos. But according to new research published this week, it started out around fifty thousand years ago not in us, but as a gorilla disease, and in one particularly unlucky gorilla, two simultaneous infections prompted the mutation and rise of the plasmodium parasite that would go on to kill millions. Dr Gavin Wright from the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Hinxton lead the team behind this molecular archaeology.