The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry

Jan 19 2021 25 mins 53.5k

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

The Mosquito Conundrum
Jan 19 2021 45 mins  
The doctors put mosquitoes on trial, as listener Cathy in the UK asks, ‘What is the point of mosquitoes?’ in response to our show about wasps. Mosquitoes have undeniably played a role in killing millions of people. Malaria is the single biggest cause of death in human history. But Erica McAlister, senior curator of flies and fleas at the UK’s Natural History Museum, reveals that not all mosquitoes are interested in biting us for a blood meal, or are involved in transmitting disease. Only the females of about 10 species are the most problematic for humanity, from around 3600 true species of mosquito. Limited research indicates that many play important roles in ecosystems, for example as pollinators on land and as food sources during their larval stage in aquatic environments. Nonetheless, those roughly 10 species cause devastating disease. Kate Jones’ research at University College London examines the interface of ecology and human health. Malaria and dengue fever alone cause over 300 million infections annually. And there are many more diseases transmitted by mosquitoes: Zika, West Nile fever, Yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis – the list goes on, and with urbanisation and climate change, the picture is constantly changing. So what can be done? Should we try to annihilate the disease-carrying species? Insecticide use has historic and ongoing controversy, as the difficulties of needing to stop deaths in the short term risks longer term environmental damage, with unforeseen and possibly greater consequences for humanity. So Adam turns to new, genetic technology with zoologist Matthew Cobb. Can and should we modify mosquitoes to wipe themselves out, by wrecking local populations with sterile males, or use a technique called a gene drive to perpetuate debilitation through generations? Or could life find a way to evolve past our attempts at control, and cause greater problems? The doctors deliberate and try to decide a verdict on mosquitoes’ fate. Presenters: Hannah Fry & Adam Rutherford Producer: Jen Whyntie A BBC Audio Science Unit production for BBC Radio 4

The Scientific Exploration of Astrology
Jan 12 2021 50 mins  
Astrology – could there be something to it? asks Dan from Australia. Rutherford and Fry investigate the science that has investigated astrology. Professor Richard Wiseman, (sceptical of all things paranormal and a Virgo) and Professor in the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, explains the long history of the scientific investigation of astrology. He has also run his own experiments to test whether astrology can help you play the stock market and to investigate if people born in the summer are luckier than those born in the winter – the results may surprise you. Journalist and author, Jo Marchant (Leo and fascinated non-believer) has written all about the history of astrology in her new book – 'The Human Cosmos – A Secret History to the Stars'. In the beginning astrology and astronomy were one and the same. She explains how astrology flourished with the elite and ruling classes of ancient Babylon, Egypt and Greece. Data scientist, Alex Boxer (Taurus and cautious astrology tourist) explains that astrology may have been humanity's first attempt to predict the future with algorithms, something we’re doing more and more of now. In his book, ‘A scheme of heaven, astrology and the birth of science’, he describes how astrological and scientific algorithms are all just big data science looking for patterns. The issue lies in what that data is. Presenters: Hannah Fry (Pisces) & Adam Rutherford (Capricorn) Producer: Fiona Roberts (Libra)

The Noises That Make Us Cringe
Jan 05 2021 48 mins  
Why do some people find noises like a fork scraping a plate so terrible? asks Findlay in Aberdeenshire. Rutherford and Fry endure some horrible noises to find out the answer. Warning - This episode contains some horrible sounds Trevor Cox, Professor of Acoustic Engineering at the University of Salford, has run experiments to find out the worst, most cringe-making sound. He divided horrible sounds into three categories: scraping sounds, like nails down a blackboard; disgusting sounds like a snotty sniffy nose; and sounds that make us cringe because of what we associate them with, like the dentist’s drill. All horrible sounds have some sort of association whether it’s a primal scream or fear of catching a disease, and they’re dealt with in the ancient part of the brain – the amygdala. Professor Tim Griffiths is a Cognitive Neurologist at Newcastle University’s Auditory Cognition Group. He has been studying people with misophonia, a condition where ordinary, everyday sounds, such as someone eating or breathing causes a severe anxiety and anger response. Misophonia may affect around 15% of the population and Tim thinks that different parts of the brain – the insula and the motor cortex - are involved in this fight or flight response to seemingly innocuous sounds. Cat Thomas’s job is to make horrible sounds. She is a foley artist at Boompost. If you watch Call the Midwife or Peaky Blinders, all the incidental sounds are created by Cat and her team. She also created some of the sounds for the horror film Camilla, which involved evisceration and disembowelling with the aid of some squishy oranges and bananas. Adam Rutherford and Hannah Fry try their own horror sounds when they chop off a finger with the aid of some large pasta shells, an orange and a knife. Presenters: Hannah Fry & Adam Rutherford Producer: Fiona Roberts If you want more information on misophonia –

The Pizza Diet
Dec 29 2020 42 mins  
Can I make a pizza that contains my recommended daily intake of everything? asks listener Paul in Manchester. We investigate whether a pizza can meet our full dietary requirements. The optimum diet for humans has been long contested. From William the Conqueror's alcohol diet to the infamous apple cider vinegar diet, discovering the healthiest nutrition is a centuries-long work in progress. So could The Pizza Diet be the next food fad? We investigate a theory that a basic margherita pizza – with its components of a flour-filled base, along with a cheese topping – should meet our needs for carbohydrate, protein and fat. Adam meets up with body-weight geneticist Giles Yeo from their respective kitchens for a remote cook-off to find out if it's possible to make this mythical one-meal wonder in practice. On closer inspection of the evidence-based government dietary requirements, this task appears somewhat challenging. Dietitian Clare Thornton-Wood analyses the components of a margherita and unsurprisingly finds they do not entirely meet the guidance. She then scrutinises our attempt to retrofit a recipe that might do the job. Giles attempts to put our proposed pizza into practice. He has to ad-lib, as the resultant mountain of eclectic toppings – chickpea and sweetcorn pizza, anyone? – and giant base won’t fit in his oven. Disappointingly for hardcore pizza fans like Paul who may be attempting healthier eating habits in 2021, it seems that this particular approach is not the way forward. Food choice psychologist Suzanna Forwood explains why there is so much more to our dietary decisions than digestive physiology, and offers tips for listeners hoping to make seasonal steps in a healthy direction. Presenters: Hannah Fry & Adam Rutherford Producer: Jen Whyntie A BBC Audio Science Unit production for BBC Radio 4

The Martian Mission
Dec 15 2020 42 mins  
What would it take for humans to live permanently on Mars? asks Martin in Weston-super-Mare, UK. The doctors dig into requirements and possibilities of a long-term Martian outpost. We know that many missions to Mars have failed, for a range of reasons – malfunctions, crashes and even a mix-up between imperial and metric units. Getting to Mars – let alone decelerating from 30,000 miles per hour to a safe landing speed in about seven minutes – is not straightforward. Aerospace engineer Anita Sengupta helped land NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars. She knows first-hand the challenges of putting a robot on the red planet. But getting robots to Mars is an easier proposition than doing the same for humans. Even if we work out how to survive the radiation exposure on the eight-month journey and the pulverising descent, Mars’ surface isn’t easily habitable. Principal investigator for NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) Bruce Jakosky describes the conditions on Mars: Freezing, with an atmosphere containing mostly carbon dioxide and very little water, and subject to annual global dust storms. However, this isn’t deterring space agencies and private companies from researching the challenge. The European Space Agency and Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems focussed on finding out the physiological and psychological tolls by selecting six candidates to spend 520 days in a simulated spacecraft and landing module. Diego Urbina explains the personal challenge of taking part in the Mars500 experiment. Some private company owners have gone even further. As well as making technology based on the current physical conditions, could those constraints themselves be altered? Could Mars be terraformed, or warmed, for easier human survival? Bruce Jakosky shares just what that would take – and compares these requirements with what’s actually available. Presenters: Hannah Fry & Adam Rutherford Producer: Jen Whyntie A BBC Audio Science Unit production for BBC Radio 4

The Hamster Power Hypothesis
Dec 08 2020 38 mins  
"How many hamsters on wheels would it take to power London?" asks Judah from Virginia in the USA. Rutherford & Fry return with engineering, ethics and economics to answer this electric query. Smart grid engineer Lynne McDonald helps keep the lights on for 8.3 million homes and businesses across London at UK Power Networks. She explains how the kilowatt hours we see on our electricity bills relate to the thousands of gigawatt hours required when thinking about powering the whole of London. In theory, a hamster in a wheel might be able to produce about half a watt of power – enough to run a small LED light bulb. Whilst the doctors argue the case on the resultant practicalities and ethics of even considering such a scenario – as, for example, the required cubic kilometre stack of hamster habitats would cover Canary Wharf – Royal Veterinary College researcher Zoe Davies points out some biological and anatomical home truths. As an expert in biomechanics currently investigating athletic performance in racehorses, she walks Adam through the impossibilities of using pretty much any animal, bird or insect as a source of power. There may be one exception though: humans. Veteran lecturer of undergraduate chemistry for biologists and cycling enthusiast, Andrea Sella discusses whether human power might realistically work. We consider what this or other more realistic sources of renewable energy could mean for the future of our national grid. Presenters: Hannah Fry & Adam Rutherford Producer: Jen Whyntie A BBC Audio Science Unit production for BBC Radio 4

The Zedonk Problem
Jul 07 2020 40 mins  
‘Today I learnt that tigons and ligers are what you get when lions and tigers interbreed?!’ surprised listener Jamz G tells the doctors. ‘What determines whether species can interbreed?’ Geneticist Aoife McLysaght studies molecular evolution. She explains the modern definition of a species, built on ideas from Aristotle, Linnaeus and Darwin: a species is a group of organisms capable of interbreeding to produce fertile offspring. Hybrids – such as ligons and tigers – are usually infertile, because their common ancestors long ago diverged into the lions and tigers we know today. However, this definition isn’t absolute, and there are many ways a new species can be formed. Hybrids also offer rich study subjects for scientists. Mathematical biologist Kit Yates discusses why he’s been reading research papers about hebras and zorses (horse x zebra) as their patterns offer insights into how cells spread and develop into organisms, building on a prediction made by codebreaking mathematician Alan Turing. And it turns out that these hybrids are even more intriguing. As speciation and evolution expert Joana Meier explains, hybrids are not always infertile. Hybridisation can lead to successful new species arising, such as in Lake Victoria’s cichlid fish, who it seems have been having a wild evolutionary party for the last 15,000 years. And the picture gets even murkier when we discover that modern genetics reveals our human ancestors successfully mated with Neanderthals. Presenters: Hannah Fry & Adam Rutherford Producer: Jen Whyntie

The End of Everything
Jun 30 2020 44 mins  
Everyone knows about the Big Bang being the beginning of the universe and time - but when and how is it going to end? ask brothers Raffie and Xe from Rome. For this series, with lockdown learning in mind, Drs Rutherford and Fry are investigating scientific mysteries for students of all ages. The doctors sift science from philosophy to find out. Cosmologist Jo Dunkley studies the origins and evolution of the universe. She explains how astrophysical ideas and techniques have evolved to tell us what we now know about our galaxy and far beyond, from the elegant parallax technique to standard candles. This particular distance measure, which uses stars of a known brightness to work out how far away other objects in the universe are, was discovered by American astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt in 1912, who worked at the Harvard University as one of several “computers” – women who processed and calculated data and made significant contributions to astronomy. Curious Cases’ universal guru Andrew Pontzen puts this into context. Because the universe is so enormous, it turns out that these measurements are just the first steps on the cosmic distance ladder – a suite of tools that astrophysicists use to determine distances to celestial objects. Scientists know that objects are moving away from us because the wavelengths of light from them get stretched and appear redder in our telescopes – the so-called red shift effect. But having a handle on the distances to and between those objects allows cosmologists to monitor what’s happening to them over time. And it turns out that not only are they getting further apart, indicating that the universe is expanding, but that this process is accelerating. So what might happen in the end? Expansion and then collapse – a big crunch? Expansion into the void – a big freeze, or a big rip? Or what if there is more than one universe – might a new one bubble up with totally different laws of physics that would cause our own to cease existing? It turns out that when dealing with predictions for something involving infinite space and time, the possibilities are largely limited by human imagination alone. Ideas are where science starts, but experiments are required to build evidence confirming or rejecting them as fact. The doctors discuss how gravitational wave detectors and quantum computers might one day provide this. Presenters: Hannah Fry & Adam Rutherford Producer: Jen Whyntie

The Sting in the Tail
Jun 23 2020 42 mins  
"What’s the point of wasps?" asks listener Andrew, who is fed up with being pestered. For this series, with lockdown learning in mind, Drs Rutherford and Fry are investigating scientific mysteries for students of all ages. Do wasps do anything to justify their presence as a picnic menace? Ecologist Seirian Sumner researches social wasp behaviour and champions their existence. Not only do yellow jacket wasps perform important ecological services as generalist pest controllers of aphids, caterpillars and flies in the UK, they have complex societies and may even perform pollination services, making them more like their better-loved bee cousins than many might think. However, much remains unknown about wasps’ contribution to our ecosystem. Seirian works with entomologist Adam Hart, and together they run The Big Wasp Survey each summer, a citizen science project dedicated to finding out more about UK wasp species and their populations. Prof Hart sets up an experimental picnic with Dr Rutherford to try and attract some native wasps and discusses why they are so maligned. But in some parts of the world UK wasp species have become a major problem. Just after World War II, having unwittingly chosen some aircraft parts destined for New Zealand as their overwintering home, some wasp queens woke up in the city of Hamilton. With no natural predators or competitors, they quickly established a growing population. Fast forward to today, and by late summer the biomass of wasps becomes greater than all the birds, rodents and stoats in the southern island’s honeydew beech forests. Multiyear nests have been discovered that are over three metres tall and contain millions of wasps. Researcher Bob Brown is digging into wasp nests back in the UK to discover which species keep wasps in check here, and whether they might work as biological control. This causes the doctors to ponder the problems of humans moving species around the planet. Accidental or even well-meaning introductions all too often become invasive. As climate change and urbanisation accelerate, wasps may become more helpful in some ways and more harmful in others. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Jen Whyntie

5 • 16 Ratings

bas1978 Jan 12 2021
I love these two!!! They have such a great 'chemistry' for lack of a better word, you can tell they obviously are great friends off mike.. it always lifts my mood listening to Hannah & Adam and there is also some great science in here too! Hannah has such a soothing voice 😁

Meio Jan 06 2021
Fascinating subject, thorough research, hosts have a good sense of humour.

msamanda Sep 22 2020
Fun and informative!

LankyG Sep 22 2020
Funny and very informative

Gloucester Dad [ Sep 06 2020
Awesome as usual.

Accolyte Sep 05 2020
Interesting, delightfully funny. The friendship between Hannah and Adam adds a wonderful depth

Androoney Sep 02 2020
Lovely, funny, fascinating. Podcasts may have evolved solely for this purpose.

edomer Aug 23 2020
Funny, factual and easy to understand.

Hasy Jul 27 2020
Informative. Funny. It's like a big warm hug for my ears

MadOgne Jul 16 2020
Funny and informative

Nico Jul 05 2020
One of my favorites, would be great to see more episodes in a season!

ef Jun 17 2020
Enjoy throughly

fendeviper Jun 09 2020
Great science & comedy. Engaging for kids.

Stemgj Jun 07 2020
Fantastic, tongue in cheek fun rapport between Drs Fry and Rutherford as they facilitate the answers to all your science questions! No, really, write in and ask them a question already!!

BatmanFlight May 18 2020
The best factual pod out there! If you're new to Curious Cases then you are very lucky, you can binge them all for ages! Enjoy!

Mike Green May 12 2020
A fun look into a science question each week by two very engaging hosts with real enthusiasm for their subjects. Nothing too technical, and the wide breadth of subject matter makes for fascinating listening.