Science Stories – Series Two

Three episodes by Philip Ball.
Radio 4 Broadcast 2016

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Einstein’s Fridge
The Meteorite and the Hidden Hoax
Submarine for a Stuart King

Einstein’s Fridge (28 minutes)

Radio 4 broadcast 03/01/2016

What do you do when you’ve described the nature of the universe?

In the late 1920s Einstein was working on a grand unified theory of the universe, having given us E=mc2, space-time and the fourth dimension. He was also working on a fridge.

Perhaps motivated by a story in the Berlin newspapers about a family who died when toxic fumes leaked from their state-of the-art refrigerator, Einstein teamed up with another physicist Leo Szilard and designed a new, safer refrigerating technology. And so it was that in 1930, the man who had once famously worked in the patent office in Bern was granted a patent of his own. Number: 1, 781, 541. Title: refrigeration.

Phillip Ball explores this little known period of Einstein’s life to try and find out why he turned his extraordinary mind to making fridges safer.

Despite considerable commercial interest in the patent, Einstein’s fridge didn’t get built in his lifetime.The Great Depression forced AEG and others to close down their refrigeration research. But in 2008 a team of British scientists decided to give it a go.Their verdict : Einstein’s fridge doesn’t work.

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Radio 4 iPlayer opens in a new windowThe Meteorite and the Hidden Hoax (28 minutes)

Radio 4 broadcast 20/01/2016

In 1864 a strange type of rock fell from the sky above Orgueil in rural France. Shocked and frightened locals collected pieces of the peculiar, peaty blob from the surrounding fields, and passed them on to museums and scientists.

At that time, a debate had been raging over the origin of life; Could life possibly form from mere chemicals? Or did it need some strange unidentified vital substance?

Into this debate fell the Orgueil meteorite, and because it seemed remarkably similar to loamy soil, some wondered whether it may hint at the existence of extra-terrestrial life.

The great Pasteur allegedly investigated, but disappointingly found no such thing. Nevertheless, the mere possibility prompted later ideas that the origin of life on earth indeed lay elsewhere in the universe, ideas that were greeted with varying degrees of skepticism over ensuing decades.

As Phil Ball narrates, given how much was at stake, and how bitterly scientists argued on either side, the most remarkable thing about the story is the extraordinary secret the meteorite kept to itself until exactly 100 years later.

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Radio 4 iPlayer opens in a new windowSubmarine for a Stuart King (28 minutes)

Radio 4 broadcast 06/02/2016

Philip Ball dives into the magical world of Cornelis Drebbel , inventor of the world’s first submarine in 1621.

How did the crew of this remarkable vessel manage to breathe underwater, completely cut off from the surface, 150 years before oxygen was officially discovered?

King James I of England and thousands of his subjects lined the banks of the River Thames in London to watch the first demonstration. The strangest boat they had ever seen sank beneath the waves and stayed there for three hours.

Did Drebbel know how to make oxygen? Historian Andrew Szydlow reveals that Drebbel did have secret knowledge of how to keep the air fresh.

In his day, Drebbel was a pioneer of exploring uninhabitable places. Today’s equivalent is to make oxygen on the Moon and as scientists grapple with this ultimate challenge, Monica Grady explains their work is being used under the waves where Drebbel began.

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