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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 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)

Ep 1 – A day out to the hottest place in the solar system

An iconic building in the Oxfordshire countryside – obscured by trees!

On Feb 20, we took a short trip southeast from Abingdon to the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) otherwise known as JET (the Joint European Torus). Basically, it’s the world’s foremost (biggest, most advanced, most successful) research facility for fusion energy.

It also means that temperatures at the core of the giant torus (or doughnut) regularly reach in excess of 100 million degrees centigrade.

We were there to chat to two members of JET’s Tritium Engineering Team – Sarah Medley and Zoltan Kollo – and if you want to know what tritium is, how crucial it is to the physics of fusion, and what fusion scientists and engineers do all day, then you’ll really enjoy this episode.

We conducted the interview in the Control Room – and felt incredibly privileged to do so.

It was a wonderful – and constantly surprising – interview. We discussed what it’s like to work in fusion, how you get to work in the field, and the challenges of working on the very frontiers of science.

We discuss the power of diversity in teams, there’s some great wisdom and advice to anyone wondering what subjects to study at school – and we bust a few stereotypes about scientists and engineers along the way…

Stories from Science

discover the ordinary extraordinary stories from science

Do you love science and technology? Are you excited to discover more about it? Do you want to get involved with science in your community?

If you want to explore big questions and global issues with local scientists, then we reckon you should listen to the Stories from Science Podcast!

Stories from Science talks to ordinary people doing extraordinary things: people using science to bring about positive change to their communities and the planet, with many of these ordinary extraordinary stories happening on your doorstep.

The podcast is focused on the global hotspot of science innovation and enterprise that is Oxford and the Science Vale. We want to help you:

  • explore the diversity of science and technology that goes on in and around the Science Vale
  • discover the stories behind companies and research organisations – through the day-to-day work of the scientists themselves
  • energise and connect with scientists via an engaged community and a crowdsourced digital platform

So what do scientists do all day? Are they saving the world or blowing things up? Filling in paperwork or inventing the future? How did they get into science in the first place – and how can you do the same?

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Mark, Nicki and the Stories from Science Team xxx