Press "Enter" to skip to content

Author: sfscience2020

Ep 11 (Pts 1 and 2) – Atoms, Spies and Science Communication with Frank Close

In 2016 the Royal Institution commissioned a book pulling together a ‘baker’s dozen’ of the finest Christmas Lectures since 1885. One of the lectures chosen was the 1993 lecture by Professor Frank Close entitled ‘The Cosmic Onion‘.

Frank’s journey into science communication started through writing for Nature and then New Scientist. A distinguished particle physicist, Frank’s CV takes in many of the world’s most important places for breakthroughs in physics: Stanford, CERN, Daresbury and Rutherford Appleton Lab. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Oxford.

He is also one of the world’s foremost experts on eclipses, having travelled all over the world to witness them. Frank also helped found the annual ATOM Festival or Science and Technology in Abingdon.

But it is as a writer and populiser of scientific ideas that Frank is best known. He has written critically acclaimed books on the neutrino, antimatter, the science of symmetry (‘Lucifer’s Legacy‘) and the story behind the hunt for the Higgs Bosun (‘The Infinity Puzzle‘).

 In recent years, Frank has written about the stories behind the atomic spies, and his latest book ‘Trinity: The Treachery and Pursuit of the Most Dangerous Spy in History‘ (published in 2019) details the gripping story of Klaus Fuchs, who worked on both the Manhattan Project and at the UK’s nuclear laboratory at Harwell, and who co-ordinated the leaking of critical information that allowed the Soviet Union to develop their own atomic bomb.

Frank was vice-president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, has received the Royal Society’s Michael Faraday Prize and the Institute of Physics Kelvin Medal for outstanding contributions to science communication. Awarded an OBE in 2000 for services to science, in 2019 Frank was interviewed by Jim Al-Khalili on the BBC’s ‘The Life Scientific‘.

Such is the sheer range and history of Frank’s experiences, the episode is split into two parts.

Part 1 focuses on Science Communication: how he (accidentally) became a science writer in the first place, the story behind that groundbreaking 1993 Christmas Lecture, and finally his experiences as head of communications at CERN when he realised that effectively explaining big science to a wider world was critical in getting popular and political support for all science.

Along the way we explore how close the UK came to pulling out of CERN in the 1980s, how to create an explosion in your bare hands, and the secret to great research: it’s all about asking the right questions apparently…

Part 2 digs further into Frank’s life as a writer – both as the author of bestselling science books such as ‘Neutrino’ and ‘The Infinity Puzzle’ to his latest books that examine the history of the Atomic Spies.

We learn about how Frank got into writing (accidentally, it turns out) and the individuals in publishing who guided him along the way. We discuss the background and content of his latest book “Trinity”, about the extraordinary life – and the secrets that still persist – about nuclear spy Klaus Fuchs.

Trinity was published in 2019, but *this* interview was recorded in 2018, which explains some anomalies in our timing references. But then, perhaps that’s appropriate for someone who has spent his life studying the often weird world of space and time in such fundamental detail…

(A reminder that you can listen now on SoundCloudiTunes and Stitcher. And for a comprehensive set of show notes, including links, analysis and organisation contact, consider becoming a supporter through Patreon – or email us for more details).

P.S. You can watch all five episodes of the Christmas Lectures – as broadcast by the BBC – on the Royal Institution website here. Accessible to anyone – young or old – it’s remains a thoroughly entertaining journey through physics, the universe and, well, everything.

Ep 10 – Rezatec: Fixing the Planet from the High Frontier

At a recent Bessemer Society event in Oxford, amongst discussions about new space, disruptive technologies and the cubesat revolution, one of the participants made the following observation.

“Earth is surrounded by layers that act to protect life on the planet from the harshness of space: we know about our atmosphere and the ozone layer, but in the Anthropocene, we’ve added another layer that is becoming just as critical: a thin veneer of data.”

We have become increasingly reliant on the ever growing swarm of satellites that orbit our planet: navigation, communications, security, and the monitoring of everything from natural disasters to climate change. But turning that stream of critical data into high-value intelligence for decision makers is becoming big business: estimates for the booming Earth Observation (EO) market vary from between $8.5bn to $15bn by 2026.

One company in the vanguard of the EO revolution is Harwell-based Rezatec.

Rezatec take data from a wide range of sources, and use geospatial analytics to transform it into something called ‘landscape intelligence’ – usable information on forests, crops, water catchments and even city planning. Increasing numbers of governments, NGOs, utilities and businesses around the globe use this intelligence to do everything from stopping the spread of crop diseases to better safeguarding the security of water supplies.

We sat down with Chief Operating Officer Philip Briscoe and Chief Technical Officer Andrew Carrel to better understand what Rezatec does and why Earth Observation science is becoming so critical: from improving crop yields to making our cities more sustainable.

It seems as if Rezatec use almost every cutting-edge area of science and technology to bear on this data layer: data analytics and machine learning, climate science and biosecurity.

It’s genuinely exciting and Rezatec are growing fast, winning awards, and recently moved into a spanking new HQ building on the Harwell Campus (‘Quad One’). This Autumn, Rezatec joined forces with the European Space Agency (ESA) in contributing to the Invisible Words exhibition at the Eden Project.

Earth Observation is transforming our relationship with the planet, and as we’ll discover, we’ve only just scratched the surface…

(Listen now on SoundCloud – iTunes – Stitcher – for a comprehensive set of show notes, including links, analysis and organisation contact, consider becoming a supporter through Patreon – or email us for more details)

Ep 9 – Surely You’re Joking Mr Mayhew-Archer? Adventures of an Incurable Optimist

Paul Mayhew-Archer is one of our best-loved comedy writers, with credits include The Vicar of Dibley (which he co-wrote with Richard Curtis), but also Old Harry’s Game (with Andy Hamilton), Miranda and the BBC adaptation of Esio Trot. He was also a BBC producer, most famously for the radio show ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’.

But in 2011, when he might ordinarily have been considering retirement, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. His response to the diagnosis was immediate, somewhat peculiar, but totally consistent with his life up to then: with humour.

Since that moment, his life has changed dramatically, both in terms of how the disease affects him personally, but more as a result of continuing to use comedy and laughter in the face of a cruel and depressing disease which affects 150,000 adults in the UK – and over 6 million people worldwide.

This interview is as unusual as it is moving. We bust taboos, and visit some very dark places as you might expect when discussing terminal illness and death. But it is also very, very funny. And that’s kind of Paul’s mission: as a society we need to talk more about these subjects, and comedy can be a wonderful vehicle to create a space within which more serious conversations can take place.

(Listen now on SoundCloud – iTunes – Stitcher – for a comprehensive set of show notes, including links, analysis and organisation contact, consider becoming a supporter through Patreon – or email us for more details)

Paul has continued to use comedy and laughter to confront the disease – both on a personal level, and helping others. He made the documentary Parkinson’s: The Funny Side (which we highly recommend, and for which he won ‘best documentary presenter’ at the 2016 Grierson Awards). And this Summer, he takes his one-man show Incurable Optimist to the Edinburgh Fringe.

So this is a science podcast with a difference. Yes, we touch on the science of Parkinson’s and its treatment, the experiences of being treated by medical science, and even the science of what laughter does to us both physiologically and socially.

But Paul Mayhew-Archer is not a scientist. He is, however, a brilliantly funny, humane individual. And in a world which struggles to deal with an ageing population, he may just hold the key to how we might just make life more bearable for those suffering from incurable disease – and those that care for them.

(Listen now on SoundCloud – iTunes – Stitcher – for a comprehensive set of show notes, including links, analysis and organisation contact, consider becoming a supporter through Patreon – or email us for more details

A hat-tip is in order: the inspiration for this interview came from an episode of the brilliant Scientists Not The Science with Stuart Higgins and Stuart Goldsmith, which first threw up the possibility of comedy and science.

And if you want to know more about Parkinson’s – what it is, living with the condition, helping someone else with the condition and a possible cure, please visit Parkinson’s UK)

Ep 8 – Destination Detonation: Renee Watson and her journey to The Curiosity Box

I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

There are many people in life who are passionate about STEM, education and science, and who work hard to connect with children, to unlock a lifelong love of science. But outside mainstream education, it would be difficult to find anyone who has so consistently and brilliantly applied herself in the service of science and education as Renee Watson.

We have been excited to talk with Renee and share her story for a while. Partly this is because you cannot help but swept up in her revolutionary fervour – Renee and her team at The Curiosity Box are leading a bona fide Curiosity Revolution after all. But her own story is so utterly compelling and, well, unlikely.

(Listen now on SoundCloud – iTunes – Stitcher – for a comprehensive set of show notes, including links, analysis and organisation contact, consider becoming a supporter through Patreon – or email us for more details)

Growing up in rural Australia, with no obvious mentors or scientists to ignite her own spark (save one, which we learn about in this episode of Stories from Science) she is almost uniquely qualified to identify and connect to her diamonds in the rough. These are the smart, motivated, curious children who fall through the cracks of mainstream education and yet are exactly the kinds of young people who will see things differently, and provide the new ideas and creativity in science that will solve problems and move society forward.

After tremendous success in science – academically and commercially through her WATS.ON consultancy, Renee set up The Curiosity Box two years ago. She has built a team – and created an ethos – that has led to awards, recognition, and earlier this year she was called out by philanthropist Melinda Gates as one of eight women in STEM to watch worldwide.

The Curiosity Box allows children and their families to do science and experiment in their own homes through a subscription service which sees a regular box crammed full of science fizz through the letterbox (metaphorically), with the aim to make science as common a topic to discuss around the kitchen table as politics and TV shows.

She is ‘Head of Explosions’ at The Curiosity Box – but she is also motivated by social justice, untapped potential, entrepreneurship and a lot of love: for science, and for the families that share back what they do with the science they get sent.

It’s difficult not to get swept up in this enthusiasm for revolution. In this inspiring hour-long interview, we discover why science capital is like carrying a suitcase, we learn the constituent parts of Unicorn Poo, and go toe-to-toe with STEM Barbie.


(Listen now on SoundCloud – iTunes – Stitcher – for a comprehensive set of show notes, including links, analysis and organisation contact, consider becoming a supporter through Patreon – or email us for more details)

Ep 7 – Our friends electric: the coming battery revolution with Brill Power

What could be more familiar than the humble electric battery? They’ve been around for years, factories knock them out regular as clockwork and we’re pretty familiar with them. They are in our phones, our remote controls, our game controllers and our cars.

So it may sound slightly crazy to say that the battery represents the start of a new industrial revolution.

(Listen now on SoundCloud – iTunes – Stitcher – for a comprehensive set of show notes, including links, analysis and organisation contact, consider becoming a supporter through Patreon – or email us for more details)

As well as our ubiquitous personal electronics, the accelerating and irreversible move to electric transportation and energy storage is sending our demand for batteries soaring. And this is bringing as many challenges as opportunities, particularly in areas of waste, weight and re-usability.

The bottom line is we need lots of better, longer-lasting and greener batteries – and we need them very soon.

In a constantly surprisingly – and genuinely inspirational – hour-long podcast, we talked to Carolyn Hicks and Christoph Birkl of Oxford University spin-out Brill Power. Emerging from Oxford University’s Department of Engineering Science, Brill is looking to bring about a revolution in battery control systems to extend the lifespan of multi-cell batteries.

This is important. Here in the UK we’ve made innovation in battery technology one of the key priorities of our industrial strategy. The UK government has even founded a new independent institute – The Faraday Institution on the Harwell Campus – to spearhead this work.

Throughout this fascinating and inspirational podcast, one thing comes across again and again: there is a revolution coming in transportation and grid energy storage, batteries are at the heart of everything – and the manufacture of these batteries represents the frontiers of a new global economic power struggle.

We guarantee you one thing: after listening to this episode, you’ll never look at the humble battery in the same way again.

(Listen now on SoundCloud – iTunes – Stitcher)

We have produced a comprehensive set of show notes, including links, analysis and organisation contacts. Members of the Stories from Science community automatically get access to these for free by becoming a supporter through Patreon – or email us for more details.

Ep 6 – Science in a Bottle: the science of winemaking with Richard and Sian Liwicki of Bothy Vineyard

The Stories from Science podcast has one goal – seek out the interesting, inspiring, quirky and compelling stories of people who work in science, and share those stories as widely as possible. Often those stories are where you might expect them to be: research facilities, science laboratories, businesses and classrooms. But what about stories in less obvious places.

Like…a vineyard?

(Listen now on SoundCloud – iTunes – Stitcher)

It turns out that there is a lot of science in winemaking. It even has its own name: oenology (pronounced ee-nology, as I discovered during my interview) and you don’t need to travel to France, California or Australia to learn about it. Here in Oxfordshire there is Bothy Vineyard, a small and rather wonderful creator of award-winning aromatic wines, a product of a surprising slice of British countryside with a singular geology and micro-climate.

In this episode of Stories from Science, I interviewed Richard and Sian Liwicki. They run Bothy Vineyard in Frilford Heath, just outside Abingdon. They are also both professional scientists, which made it doubly appropriate that we chat to them for the podcast.

Bothy Vineyard is special for many reasons. The land on which the vineyard sits has a very unusual geology (just how unusual is explained in the interview). There are challenges to growing vines on land that isn’t sloped (the traditional terrain of a vineyard).

But Bothy is a pioneer in striving for sustainability in its vineyard, experimenting and persevering with biodiversity areas, and soil enrichment techniques to improve the soil and bring it ‘back to life’ from previous farming methods. In doing so, they are tapping into a long and ancient tradition of winemaking in the Vale of the White Horse.

Bothy do not ship wine – the vast majority of wine produced is consumed locally. And they are profoundly embedded within that community, involving them in most aspects of vineyard management and some of the winemaking process. We learn about stripping parties and harvesting which are aided by a small army of local volunteers – and you can find out how to get involved (because it sounds a great deal of fun!)

This way of running a vineyard is not without risk, and the threat of a devastating frost always hovers (quite literally) over the vines every springtime. This means wine production varies, from approximately 5,500 bottles to none. In the episode we talk about the weird and wonderful techniques that can be used to protect your harvest shared amongst vineyard owners from around the world.

But the result is always worth it. In the final analysis, Bothy is special because of the quality of the aromatic wines they produce and the awards they have won. In that, they are offering a potential way forward for the development of English wines, which have a growing reputation around the world.

This episode was such a joy to record – not just because of Richard and Sian’s obvious passion and expertise shine through, or the fact that they were both so open and generous in guiding us through the process. We sat in a glorious part of the Oxfordshire countryside, and future episodes will have to go some way to beat that location in nature’s recording studio. There’s a bit of wind, and at one stage a stunt plane buzzes us from the nearby airfield – but apart from that, it really was an unexpected nirvana of science chat. Enjoy.

(Listen now on SoundCloud – iTunes – Stitcher)

You can learn more about Bothy Vineyard – including how to visit and get hold of wines – here.  And you can discover how to support Stories from Science, and get involved in future podcasts, by visiting our Patreon page here.

Naturally we had to check that the final product was just how Richard and Sian described it during the podcast…

Ep 5 – Can a Science Festival change the world? The ATOM Festival of Science and Technology 2018

In this special episode of Stories from Science, we go behind the scenes of a very modern phenomenon: the Science Festival.

(Listen now on SoundCloud – iTunes – Stitcher)

Specifically, we peek behind the curtain of the ATOM Festival of Science and Technology, which has taken place in Abingdon-on-Thames every year for the last five years. This year’s festival took place in March 2018, and – in spite of a sudden and dramatic snowfall on the final weekend – was a huge success.

Kicking off with the Science Market (think Farmer’s Market but with science!) a whole week of talks, hands-on science activities, school’s outreach, and quirky science events culminated in the Family Science Day which saw over 500 people descend on the Yang Science Centre putting on VR goggles, looking at friendly (and not so friendly) microbes, messing around with fire, bubbles, dinosaurs, making cars and rockets – and learning about the scale of the universe.

In this episode we speak to the people involved in ATOM: the speakers, communicators, organisers and audience who came along.

Along the way, we’ll discover the peculiar properties of Iron Selenide, discover how much fun you can have with liquid nitrogen, and learn that even if you never liked science at school, there are still plenty of opportunities for you to have a career in science.

What Science Festivals do may seem obvious – lots of entertaining science events to inspire young and old alike – but when you pick apart a festival like ATOM, the results are more far-reaching, and – in at least one surprising instance – rather profound with implications for new opportunities for business and academia.

For ATOM, this is partly due to its special location in the Science Vale – between the science centres of Culham, Harwell and Oxford.

But there are lessons for everyone involve in science communication, outreach, events and other festivals. We hope this podcast gives you loads of inspiration and – for anyone involved in a science festival – ideas to help your festivals thrive.

Because the benefits of a well-run, community-centred science festival have all kinds of implications: for business, academia, town centre regeneration, inclusivity, education and community cohesion.

Ultimately we are talking about ‘Science Capital’ – a way in which science becomes  embedded within a community, for the benefit of all, with impacts felt far and wide.

(Listen now on SoundCloud – iTunes – Stitcher)

(Listen now on SoundCloud – iTunes – Stitcher)





Want to help Stories from Science do more? If you enjoyed this and other episodes, please consider rating us on SoundCloudiTunes or Stitcher. And you can also support us directly through our Patreon page – thank you!

Ep 4 – Shooting for the Moon with the next generation: Fran Long of Sublime STEM

The teaching of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – STEM – is possibly *the* hot topic in education at the moment. It’s no exaggeration to say that we need hundreds of thousands of new scientists and engineers in the coming years, but in a time of huge educational challenges, how exactly do you inspire and ‘hook’ young children on science, and give them the hunger and resilience to succeed in STEM subjects for the long term?

(Listen now on SoundCloudiTunesStitcher) – for a comprehensive set of show notes, including links, analysis and organisation contact, consider becoming a supporter through Patreon – or email us for more details)

Even the government’s own figures are stark: we need 20,000 more engineering graduates every year just to replace those retiring from the profession. But the challenges in STEM teaching are not just getting more students to pick subjects to study at university: how do you get school pupils to stay the course in secondary school, where do we get the resources from, and what exactly should children be doing not just to learn about STEM but see themselves as engineers and scientists in the future?

To begin to get some answers, we had an inspirational chat with Fran Long of Sublime STEM, educator and Primary Science Specialist. Her passion and enthusiasm for getting primary school children hooked on science is all the more remarkable considering the fact that she struggled with science herself when at school.

Fran’s path into STEM teaching started in perhaps the last place you might have thought: working out how to boost literacy and ‘reading for pleasure’ amongst primary age children (another urgent concern in schools). Fran adopted a very scientific approach to the problem, trying different things, and getting hard data to provide evidence of what worked.

This approached grew into ‘start local’ philosophy of STEM teaching, in which she reached out to everyone from school parents to global companies, and in the process turned dry curriculum science topics into interactive spectacles to wow young people.

Earlier this year, her hard work paid off: Fran won the UK’s Primary Science Teacher Award.

This episode of Stories from Science is both eye-opening and contains a lot of pieces to the STEM puzzle.  We discover why children need to get hooked on science by age 10, why family involvement is crucial and why current methods of encouraging girls into STEM might be counter-productive.

We explore why you need good storytellers in science, and we look at the networks and organisations that exist right now to help teachers and parents inspire children in science. Above all we link literacy to science in a way that would make CP Snow proud.

The interview lasts about 45 minutes, which is no time at all for all the topics we touched upon. But with Fran starting a new role with the Natural History Museum in Oxford we’re sure to be inviting her back for a follow-up…

(Listen now on SoundCloudiTunesStitcher)

We have produced a comprehensive set of show notes, including links, analysis and organisation contacts. Members of the Stories from Science community automatically get access to these by becoming a supporter through Patreon – or email us for more details.

If you enjoyed this and other episodes, please consider rating us on SoundCloudiTunes or Stitcher. But please become a supporter through our Patreon page!

Ep 3 – The billion dollar question: science as a tool for wealth creation

Hollywood tends to do two things with science. Let the imagination (and the CGI) run wild, or else focus in on one of the biggest clichés in the business: the lone genius battling against odds on a breakthrough that will change (or save) the world.

Sadly, this isn’t how scientific breakthroughs tend to happen…

There’s nothing we love more on ‘Stories from Science’ than a hoary old stereotype that we can bust apart, and this one is particularly dangerous and pernicious. Because whilst there are individuals who slave away in a lab, science breakthroughs that can be moved successfully from research environment into business – science commercialisation – are long, complicated, expensive and often heartbreaking journeys.

Many entrepreneurs think it’s all about the idea. In reality, it’s about everything but, from people and politics, to finance and legal wrangles. Above all it’s not for the faint-hearted.

No-one knows this better than Stephen Bennington, founder and director of science spin-out consultancy Krino Partners. His science journey took him from one of the world’s biggest research facilities (the ISIS neutron source at Harwell), to helping spin-out science and technology companies at universities including Sussex University and University College London (where he was visiting professor for Nanotechnology).

In 2011 he founded his own science spin-out – hydrogen storage company Cella Energy. His experience of the highs and lows on the cutting edge of science commercialisation forms the core of our interview.

As well as being a primer on hydrogen storage and the future of 3D printing, we cover teamwork, transferable skills and the often harsh reality of venture capital. And we get to the core of why science and technology start-ups can fail, and the changes you can do to allow them to succeed. It’s about creating an environment where scientists and engineers can work together in harmony…

Ep 2 – How to win friends and STEMfluence people

During 2015, anyone driving down Faringdon Road in Abingdon would have seen an impressive building taking shape on the edge of the campus of Abingdon School. But as the bulk of the work on its new £14 million Science Centre progressed, behind the scenes the school was wrestling with a problem.

Tensions between public and private education are well-known and raise strong feelings on both sides. From the outset the school was committed to providing significant public access – and thus benefit – to the science centre, but just opening up the labs, even with the help of skilled technicians, wasn’t much of an option. Aside from practical safety considerations, the big challenge was to translate the needs and requirements of science users in the wider community into co-ordinated activities – and leverage resources available through wider STEM programmes across the UK.

(Listen now on SoundCloudiTunesStitcher)

The solution was to recruit a specialist science teacher and have that teacher spend 50% of his or her time co-ordinating activities, partnerships and connections to schools organisations in the local community and around the UK. The result was the Abingdon Science Partnership – and the results have been both impressive and significant.

On March 6, we travelled across Abingdon to meet with Megan Milarski and Jeremy Thomas at the Partnership (or ASP as it’s known to those in the know). Now three years old, it’s an almost unique science outreach organisation, but its success is offering up a template which might be replicable in other parts of the UK.

The sheer range of activities, clubs, services and partner organisations sometimes makes it difficult to neatly summarise the ASP, and so our interview was an ideal opportunity to dig down and understand the ambitions underlying the partnership. In doing so, we explore how the ASP works with local primary and secondary schools, scouting organisations, and partner organisations such as the Institute for Research in Schools (IRIS), the Young Scientists Journal, Polar Explorers Programme, the Ogden Trust, CREST and many more.

Along the way we took a detour to the Southern Ocean, found a neat way of combining STEM and exercise – and explored the critical concept of ‘Science Capital’ in society.

(Listen now on SoundCloudiTunesStitcher)

(Update 1: two weeks after we conducted the interview, on Sunday March 18, over 500 people – mostly Abingdon-based families – attended the free Family Science Fair hosted by the Abingdon Science Partnership as part of the annual ATOM Festival and Science and Technology. It was a fitting example of the potential – and power – of the partnership, around which ATOM volunteers, University outreach groups, local schools, and science engagement organisations such as Curiosity Box and Bright Sparks Science coalesced to produce a stunning hands-on science event. You can see images from that event here.)

(Update 2: In April 2018, the Abingdon Science Partnership were shortlisted in the ‘Contribution to local community’ category for the #tesFEawards TES FE Awards 2018. This is a significant recognition of their work and activities, and wish them the best of luck when the awards are announced later this year)