The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry

BBC Radio 4

Science sleuths Dr Adam Rutherford and Dr Hannah Fry investigate everyday mysteries sent by listeners.

  • 14 minutes 26 seconds
    Introducing… Uncharted with Hannah Fry

    Behind every line on a graph, there lies an extraordinary human story. Mathematician Hannah Fry is here to tell us ten of them.

    2 October 2023, 6:00 am
  • 41 minutes 48 seconds
    The Impossible Number

    There is a bizarre number in maths referred to simply as ‘i’. It appears to break the rules of arithmetic - but turns out to be utterly essential for applications across engineering and physics. We’re talking about the square root of -1. WHICH MAKES NO SENSE.

    Professor Fry waxes lyrical about the beauty and power of this so-called ‘imaginary’ number to a sceptical Dr Rutherford. Dr Michael Brooks tells the surprising story of the duelling Italian mathematicians who gave birth to this strange idea, and shares how Silicon Valley turned it into cold hard cash. It's all about oscillations, Professor Jeff O’Connell demonstrates. And finally, Dr Eleanor Knox reveals that imaginary numbers are indispensable for the most fundamental physics of all: quantum mechanics.

    Imaginary, impossible…but essential!

    Contributors: Professor Jeff O’Connell, Ohlone College California, Dr Michael Brooks, Author of 'The Maths That Made Us', and Dr Eleanor Knox, Philosopher of Physics at KCL and a Senior Visiting Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh.

    Producer: Ilan Goodman

    14 February 2023, 11:00 am
  • 43 minutes 44 seconds
    The Mind Numbing Medicine

    This episode will render you oblivious, conked out and blissfully unaware. It’s about anaesthetics: those potent potions that send you into a deep, deathly sleep. Listener Alicia wants to know how they work, so our sleuths call on the expertise of consultant anaesthetist Dr Fiona Donald. Fiona shares her experience from the clinical frontline, and explains what we do and don’t know about how these chemicals work their mind-numbing magic. We hear about ground-breaking research led by Professor Irene Tracey, which reveals how a pattern of slow brain waves can be used to determine the optimum dosage of these dangerous drugs.

    And finally, Drs Rutherford and Fry wonder: what does all this tell us about normal consciousness? Professor Anil Seth shares how we can use brain tech to measure different levels of conscious awareness – from sleepy to psychedelic.

    Presenters: Hannah Fry and Adam Rutherford Producer: Ilan Goodman

    7 February 2023, 11:00 am
  • 38 minutes 30 seconds
    The Resurrection Quest

    ‘Can we bring back extinct species?’ wonders listener Mikko Campbell. Well, Professor Fry is pretty excited by the prospect of woolly mammoths roaming the Siberian tundra once more. And everyone is impressed with the science that might make it happen. But Dr Rutherford comes out STRONGLY against the whole thing. Can our expert guests win him over?

    Dr Helen Pilcher shares the tale of Celia the lonely mountain goat, and makes the case for cloning to help protect species at risk of extinction. Professor Beth Shapiro sets out how biotech company ‘Colossal’ plans to engineer Asian elephants’ DNA to make a new group of mammoth-like creatures. And we hear how genetic technologies are being used in conservation efforts around the world.

    BUT WHAT ABOUT T-REXES? Not gonna happen. Sorry.

    Contributors: Dr Helen Pilcher, author of ‘Bring Back the King: The New Science of De-Extinction’, Professor Beth Shapiro from the University of California Santa Cruz, Dr Ben Novak of Revive and Restore and Tullis Matson from Nature’s SAFE.

    Presenters: Hannah Fry and Adam Rutherford

    Producer: Ilan Goodman

    31 January 2023, 11:00 am
  • 36 minutes 9 seconds
    The Puzzle of the Pyramids

    The Great Pyramids of Giza are awesome feats of engineering and precision. So who built them - and how? Was it a mysteriously super-advanced civilization now oddly extinct? Was it even aliens?

    Nah, course not! Rutherford and Fry investigate how these inspiring monuments were really constructed, and learn about the complex civilisation and efficient bureaucracy that made them possible.

    Professor Sarah Parcak busts the myth that they were built by slaves. In fact, she reveals, it was gangs of well-paid blokes fuelled by the ancient Egyptian equivalent of burgers and beer. And Dr Chris Naunton explains how it was not some mysterious tech, but incredible organisation and teamwork which made it possible to transport massive stone blocks over long distances several thousand years before trucks arrived.

    Dr Heba Abd El Gawad points out how racism led to bizarre assumptions in the history of archaeology, and how those assumptions linger in contemporary conspiracy theories which refuse to accept that Egyptians could have built the pyramids themselves!

    Presenters: Hannah Fry and Adam Rutherford Contributors: Professor Sarah Parcak, University of Alabama, Dr Chris Naunton, Egyptologist and broadcaster, Dr Heba Abd El Gawad, University College London Producers: Ilan Goodman & Emily Bird

    24 January 2023, 11:00 am
  • 43 minutes 37 seconds
    The Magnetic Mystery

    Magnets are inside loads of everyday electronic kit - speakers, motors, phones and more - but listener Lucas is mystified: what, he wonders, is a magnetic field?

    Our sleuths set out to investigate the mysterious power of magnets, with the help of wizard / physicist Dr Felix Flicker - author of the The Magick of Matter - and materials scientist Dr Anna Ploszajski.

    They cover the secrets of lodestones - naturally occurring magnetic rocks - and how to levitate crystals, frogs and maybe even people.

    Matthew Swallow, the Chair of the UK Magnetics Society, explains why magnets make the best brakes for rollercoasters, and Dr Ploszajski explains how magnetically-induced eddy currents are used to sort through our recycling.

    Finally, Dr Flicker persuades Adam and Hannah that to really understand magnetic fields you have to leave classical physics behind, and go quantum... So our sleuths take a leap into the strange subatomic realm.

    Contributors: Dr Felix Flicker, Lecturer in Physics at Cardiff University and author of ‘The Magick of Matter’, Dr Anna Ploszajski, materials scientist and author of ‘Handmade’, Matthew Swallow, Chair of the UK Magnetics Society

    Presented by Hannah Fry and Adam Rutherford Producer: Ilan Goodman

    17 January 2023, 11:00 am
  • 43 minutes 6 seconds
    The Case of the Blind Mind's Eye

    Close your eyes and think of a giraffe. Can you see it? I mean, *really* see it - in rich, vivid detail? If not - you aren’t alone! We’ve had scores of messages from listeners who report having a ‘blind mind’s eye’. They don’t see mental images at all and they want to know why. Jude from Perth wants to know what makes her brain different, and Diane from Scotland wonders whether it affectes her ability to remember family holidays.

    Our sleuths learn that this is a condition recently termed ‘aphantasia’. They meet the chap who came up with the name, Professor Adam Zeman, a neurologist from the University of Exeter, and quiz him on the brain mechanisms behind this mystery. Professor Julia Simner - a psychologist who, herself, doesn’t see mental images - shares the surprising research into how aphants differ slightly from others in a range of cognitive skills. We also hear about the world class artists and animators who can’t visualise - but can create beautiful, imaginary worlds. Philosophy professor Fiona Macpherson from the University of Glasgow, deepens the mystery: perhaps this largely hidden phenomenon is behind some of the most profound disagreements in the history of psychology. Our mental experiences are all very different - maybe that’s why thinkers have come up with such different theories about how our minds work. Search for the “VVIQ” or Vividness of Visual Imagery questionnaire to take the test yourself. Look for “The Perception Census” to take part in this massive online study of perceptual variation. And look up the 'Aphtantasia Network' if you're curious to find out more.

    Presenters: Hannah Fry and Adam Rutherford Contributors: Professor Adam Zeman, Professor Julia Simner, Professor Fiona Macpherson Producer: Ilan Goodman

    10 January 2023, 11:00 am
  • 12 minutes 8 seconds
    Silly Studies: The Pre-Series Teaser

    The new series kicks off very soon! As a little aperitif, Hannah and Adam review some surprising studies published in scientific journals. Warning: contains fruity language and grisly medical scenarios…

    5 January 2023, 1:15 pm
  • 39 minutes
    The Puzzle of the Plasma Doughnut

    What do you get if you smash two hydrogen nuclei together? Helium and lots of energy. That’s no joke – it's nuclear fusion!

    Nuclear fusion is the power source of the sun and the stars. Physicists and engineers here on earth are trying to build reactors than can harness fusion power to provide limitless clean energy. But it’s tricky...

    Rutherford and Fry are joined by Dr Melanie Windridge, plasma physicist and CEO of Fusion Energy Insights, who explains why the fourth state of matter – plasma – helps get fusion going, and why a Russian doughnut was a key breakthrough on the path to fusion power.

    Dr Sharon Ann Holgate, author of Nuclear Fusion: The Race to Build a Mini Sun on Earth, helps our sleuths distinguish the more familiar nuclear fission (famous for powerful bombs) from the cleaner and much less radioactive nuclear fusion.

    And plasma physicist (another one!) Dr Arthur Turrell describes the astonishing amount of investment and innovation going on to try and get fusion power working at a commercial scale.

    Contributors: Dr Melanie Windridge, Dr Sharon Ann Holgate, Dr Arthur Turrell

    Producer: Ilan Goodman

    20 September 2022, 10:05 am
  • 36 minutes 31 seconds
    The Riddle of Red-Eyes and Runny-Noses

    Sneezes, wheezes, runny noses and red eyes - this episode is all about allergies. An allergic reaction is when your immune system reacts to something harmless – like peanuts or pollen – as if it was a parasitic invader. It’s a case of biological mistaken identity. Professor Judith Holloway from the University of Southampton guides our sleuths through the complex immune pathways that make allergies happen and tells the scary story of when she went into anaphylactic shock from a rogue chocolate bar. Professor Adam Fox, a paediatric allergist at Evelina Children’s Hospital, helps the Drs distinguish intolerances or sensitivities – substantial swelling from a bee sting, for example - from genuine allergies. Hannah’s orange juice ‘allergy’ is exposed as a probable fraud! Hannah and Adam explore why allergies are on the increase, and Professor Rick Maizels from the University of Glasgow shares his surprising research using parasitic worms to develop anti-allergy drugs! Producer: Ilan Goodman Contributors: Professor Judith Holloway, Professor Adam Fox, Professor Rick Maizels

    13 September 2022, 10:00 am
  • 35 minutes 56 seconds
    The Problem of Infinite Pi(e)

    Hungry for pi? Chow down on this!

    Pi is the ratio between a circle’s diameter and its circumference. Sounds dull – but pi turns out to have astonishing properties and crop up in places you would never expect. For a start, it goes on forever and never repeats, meaning it probably contains your name, date of birth, and the complete works of Shakespeare written in its digits.

    Maths comedian Matt Parker stuns Adam with his ‘pie-endulum’ experiment, in which a chicken and mushroom pie is dangled 2.45m to form a pendulum which takes *exactly* 3.14 seconds per swing.

    Mathematician Dr Vicky Neale explains how we can be sure that the number pi continues forever and never repeats - despite the fact we can never write down all its digits to check! She also makes the case that aliens would probably measure angles using pi because it’s a fundamental constant of the universe.

    NASA mission director Dr Marc Rayman drops in to explain how pi is used to navigate spacecraft around the solar system. And philosopher of physics Dr Eleanor Knox serves up some philoso-pi, revealing why some thinkers have found pi’s ubiquity so deeply mysterious.

    Hannah grins with delight for most of show. It’s all maths!

    Producer: Ilan Goodman

    Contributors: Matt Parker, Dr Vicky Neale, Dr Marc Rayman, Dr Eleanor Knox

    6 September 2022, 10:00 am
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