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Category: science

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 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…