Science Stories – Series Four

Four episodes by Philip Ball.
Radio 4 Broadcast 2017

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The Day the Earth Stopped standing Still
The man who predicted deforestation and climate change 200 years ago
Jumping Genes

Episode One – The Day the Earth Stopped standing Still (28 minutes)

How a dying man’s book demoted the earth and reconstructed the universe.

Prior to 1543 it was generally believed that the earth lay static in the centre of the universe, while the Sun, moon, planets and stars revolved around it in various complex paths, some even looping back and forth, as described by the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy over a millennium before. This Ptolemaic system sat comfortably reconciled with philosophy and biblical scripture, not to mention immediate experience and observations.

In the 16th century astronomy and astrology were closely intertwined, as the art of predicting where the small dots of light on the night sky would appear had consequences if you were the sort of person who based your actions on horoscopes. But astronomers didn’t have the right to start telling philosophers and theologians how the universe was actually constructed – what its mechanisms were – they merely observed the moving dots of light and used mathematics to predict where they would be the next night, week or month. This was an essential function for the Catholic church too – as the all-important date of Easter is based around a complicated lunar pattern.

But also at that time in northern Europe, Martin Luther and others had begun a protestant revolution, fundamentally questioning the authority of the Pope and Vatican.

It was an auspicious time for a fairly middle ranking Catholic cleric, Nicolaus Copernicus, working in a remote corner of northern Poland to drop a note around telling other astronomers that he’d worked out a new system that made for better astronomical calculations by making the moon travel round a spinning earth, and the earth and all the planets travel around the Sun.

If that were the true shape of the universe, the bible could no longer be literally true.

It took 30 years, but eventually a keen young Austrian mathematician convinced him to publish his book.

So a German radical protestant published a book by a mild-mannered Polish Catholic cleric, a book that allegedly simplified the cosmos, rightfully placing the Sun at the centre of our local universe, kicking off the scientific revolution and leading to the European enlightenment.

But as Phil Ball explains, the real story of ‘De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium’ – ‘On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres’ – is not quite as straight forward as all that.

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Radio 4 iPlayer opens in a new windowEpisode Three – The man who predicted deforestation and climate change 200 years ago (28 minutes)

The man who predicted deforestation and harmful human induced climate change 200 years ago. When Alexander von Humboldt explored the South American rain forests he realised that nature was a ‘web of life’ and witnessed how human activities were catastrophically damaging the landscape. Historian Andrea Wulf argues that climbing Chimborazo, then believed to be the highest peak in the world, was Humboldt’s equivalent to modern day satellite pictures showing the devastation of deforestation. Looking down he recognised the significance of what he saw, so why did it take so long for science to take such concerns seriously? Philip Ball discusses this question with Kathy Willis, Director of Science at Kew Gardens.

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Radio 4 iPlayer opens in a new windowEpisode Five – Mesmerism (28 minutes)

Anton Mesmer’s magnetic cures for nervous conditions were famous in Vienna and Paris in the 1780s. He figured that the currents of an invisible fluid in the patient’s body were like movements of the fluid thought to cause the force of magnetism. And so he decided that he should use magnets to affect it.

Mesmer set up a clinic in his house in which patients came to dip their hands or feet, or even their whole bodies, into baths filled with what he called magnetized water, given healing powers by magnetized iron rods or plates immersed in them. His treatment was a performance as it involved music, gestures, and props, and his own forceful personality.

But in 1784 the suspicious French medical profession persuaded the King, Louis 16th, to launch an official investigation into Mesmer’s methods. The inquiry found that his treatment was useless and possibly dangerous and should be stopped. Mesmer retreated to Austria and died in 1815.

This was one of the first occasions on which what we might now call parapsychology was put under scientific scrutiny.

Philip Ball tells the story of Mesmer and the rise and fall of animal magnetism. He talks to Simon Shaffer, Professor of the History of Science at Cambridge University, about the role of spectacle in science and medicine in the late 18th century and to Richard Wiseman, Professor of Psychology at Hertfordshire University, about the legacy of scientific scrutiny of the claims of parapsychology.

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Radio 4 iPlayer opens in a new windowEpisode Six – Jumping Genes (28 minutes)

Philip Ball tells the story of US geneticist and 1983 Nobel Prize-winner Barbara McLintock.

Barbara McClintock’s work on the genetics of corn won her a Nobel prize in 1983. Her research on jumping genes challenged the over-simplified picture of chromosomes and DNA that Watson and Crick’s discovery has all too often been used to support. During the half century that she worked at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory she became something of a living legend, a pioneer in a time when women weren’t expected to take much interest in science. In that story, she made a profound discovery that her male colleagues dismissed for years, leaving her out in the cold until they finally realized that it was true and granted her a belated Nobel Prize.

Philip Ball tells the story of Barbara McLintock’s life and work, from her early preference for sports, for solitude, and for intellectual life, that disturbed her parents, to her meticulous research on corn. In conversation with her recent biographer, Dr Nathaniel Comfort of Johns Hopkins University, he explores the facts and the fictions that grew up around her. Philip Ball talks about the legacy of her discovery of jumping genes with Professor Greg Hannon of the Cancer Research UK Institute at Cambridge University, who spent 25 years working in the McLintock Laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor.

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