Discovery - In Their Element [world Service]

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01Mercury - Chemistry's Jekyll and Hyde20170724

The most beautiful and shimmering of the elements, the weirdest, and yet the most reviled

The most beautiful and shimmering of the elements, the weirdest, and yet the most reviled.

Chemist Andrea Sella tell the story of Mercury, explaining the significance of this element not just for chemistry, but also the development of modern civilisation.

It's been a a source of wonder for thousands of years - why is this metal a liquid? and what is its contribution to art, from the Stone Age to the Renaissance?

We look at how Mercury is integral to hundreds of years of scientific discoveries, from weather forecasting to steam engines and the detection of atomic particles it has a key role.

However Mercury is highly toxic in certain forms and ironically the industrial processes it helped create have led to global pollution which now threatens fish, wildlife and ourselves.

We ask is it time to say goodbye to Mercury?

Picture: Hg, mercury metal drops, credit: AlexeyVS/Getty Images

01Mercury - Chemistry's Jekyll And Hyde20170724

The most beautiful and shimmering of the elements, the weirdest, and yet the most reviled

The most beautiful and shimmering of the elements, the weirdest, and yet the most reviled.

Chemist Andrea Sella tell the story of Mercury, explaining the significance of this element not just for chemistry, but also the development of modern civilisation.

It's been a a source of wonder for thousands of years - why is this metal a liquid? and what is its contribution to art, from the Stone Age to the Renaissance?

We look at how Mercury is integral to hundreds of years of scientific discoveries, from weather forecasting to steam engines and the detection of atomic particles it has a key role.

However Mercury is highly toxic in certain forms and ironically the industrial processes it helped create have led to global pollution which now threatens fish, wildlife and ourselves.

We ask is it time to say goodbye to Mercury?

Picture: Hg, mercury metal drops, credit: AlexeyVS/Getty Images

0220170731

Scientists tell the story of five elements, explaining why they matter for chemistry and the development of modern civilisation.

Oxygen appeared on Earth over two billion years ago and life took off. Now it makes up just over a fifth of the air. Trevor Cox, professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford, England, tells the story of oxygen on Earth and in space.

Without oxygen, there would be no life on Earth, yet it was not discovered until late in the 18th Century. During the Great Oxidation Event, three billion years ago, cyanobacteria, thought to be the earliest forms of life on our planet, started to photosynthesise and these tiny creatures were responsible for putting the oxygen into our atmosphere, so we can breathe today. But it is not just for breathing. Ozone is three atoms of oxygen, and when it is in the stratosphere it stops harmful UVB rays from the sun reaching us. And if we are ever to leave our home planet, we will need to find a way to generate enough oxygen to keep us alive.

Trevor visits the Science Museum in London, to discover how astronauts on the space station get their oxygen. Trevor Cox is not only an acoustic engineer, he also plays the saxophone. When he finds out the role that oxygen, in the air, has on the sound of his playing he gets a surprise.

(Photo: Hovering clouds near Nagqu, approx 4,500 meters above sea level, north of Lhasa on the Tibetan plateau. Credit: Frederic J Brown/ AFP/Getty Images)

Scientists tell the story of five elements, explaining why they matter for chemistry and the development of modern civilisation.

Oxygen appeared on Earth over 2 billion years ago and life took off. Now it makes up just over a fifth of the air. Trevor Cox, Professor of Acoustic Engineering at the University of Salford, England, tells the story of oxygen on Earth and in space.
Without oxygen, there would be no life on Earth, yet it wasn’t discovered until late in the 18th century. During the ‘Great Oxidation Event’, 3 billion years ago, cyanobacteria, thought to be the earliest forms of life on our planet, started to photosynthesise and these tiny creatures were responsible for putting the oxygen into our atmosphere, so we can breathe today. But it’s not just for breathing. Ozone is three atoms of oxygen, and when it is in the stratosphere it stops harmful UVB rays from the sun reaching us. And if we are ever to leave our home planet, we will need to find a way to generate enough oxygen to keep us alive.
Trevor visits the Science Museum in London, to discover how astronauts on the space station get their oxygen. Trevor Cox is not only an acoustic engineer, he also plays the saxophone. When he finds out the role that oxygen, in the air, has on the sound of his playing he gets a surprise.

Hovering clouds near Nagqu, approx 4,500 meters above sea level, north of Lhasa on the Tibetan plateau.
Credit: FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP / Getty Images

0220170731

Scientists tell the story of five elements, explaining why they matter for chemistry and the development of modern civilisation.

Oxygen appeared on Earth over two billion years ago and life took off. Now it makes up just over a fifth of the air. Trevor Cox, professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford, England, tells the story of oxygen on Earth and in space.

Without oxygen, there would be no life on Earth, yet it was not discovered until late in the 18th Century. During the Great Oxidation Event, three billion years ago, cyanobacteria, thought to be the earliest forms of life on our planet, started to photosynthesise and these tiny creatures were responsible for putting the oxygen into our atmosphere, so we can breathe today. But it is not just for breathing. Ozone is three atoms of oxygen, and when it is in the stratosphere it stops harmful UVB rays from the sun reaching us. And if we are ever to leave our home planet, we will need to find a way to generate enough oxygen to keep us alive.

Trevor visits the Science Museum in London, to discover how astronauts on the space station get their oxygen. Trevor Cox is not only an acoustic engineer, he also plays the saxophone. When he finds out the role that oxygen, in the air, has on the sound of his playing he gets a surprise.

(Photo: Hovering clouds near Nagqu, approx 4,500 meters above sea level, north of Lhasa on the Tibetan plateau. Credit: Frederic J Brown/ AFP/Getty Images)

Oxygen appeared on Earth over 2 billion years ago and life took off. Now it makes up just over a fifth of the air. Trevor Cox, Professor of Acoustic Engineering at the University of Salford, England, tells the story of oxygen on Earth and in space.
Without oxygen, there would be no life on Earth, yet it wasn’t discovered until late in the 18th century. During the ‘Great Oxidation Event’, 3 billion years ago, cyanobacteria, thought to be the earliest forms of life on our planet, started to photosynthesise and these tiny creatures were responsible for putting the oxygen into our atmosphere, so we can breathe today. But it’s not just for breathing. Ozone is three atoms of oxygen, and when it is in the stratosphere it stops harmful UVB rays from the sun reaching us. And if we are ever to leave our home planet, we will need to find a way to generate enough oxygen to keep us alive.
Trevor visits the Science Museum in London, to discover how astronauts on the space station get their oxygen. Trevor Cox is not only an acoustic engineer, he also plays the saxophone. When he finds out the role that oxygen, in the air, has on the sound of his playing he gets a surprise.

Hovering clouds near Nagqu, approx 4,500 meters above sea level, north of Lhasa on the Tibetan plateau.
Credit: FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP / Getty Images

03And then there was Li20170807

The element that links the formation of the universe with the functioning of our brains

From the origins of the universe, though batteries, glass and grease to influencing the working of our brains, neuroscientist Sophie Scott tracks the incredible power of lithium.

It's 200 years ago this year that lithium was first isolated and named, but this, the lightest of all metals, had been used as a drug for centuries before.

From the industrial revolution it proves its worth as a key ingredient in glass and grease, and as the major component in lithium ion batteries it powers every smartphone on the planet.

In mental health lithium has proved one of the most effective treatments. And its use to treat physical ailments is now making a comeback.

We explore how the chemistry of lithium links all these apparently unrelated uses together.

Main Image: Lights from mobile phones in Bucharest on February, 2017. Credit: ANDREI PUNGOVSCHI / AFP / Getty Images )

03And Then There Was Li20170807

The element that links the formation of the universe with the functioning of our brains

From the origins of the universe, though batteries, glass and grease to influencing the working of our brains, neuroscientist Sophie Scott tracks the incredible power of lithium.

It's 200 years ago this year that lithium was first isolated and named, but this, the lightest of all metals, had been used as a drug for centuries before.

From the industrial revolution it proves its worth as a key ingredient in glass and grease, and as the major component in lithium ion batteries it powers every smartphone on the planet.

In mental health lithium has proved one of the most effective treatments. And its use to treat physical ailments is now making a comeback.

We explore how the chemistry of lithium links all these apparently unrelated uses together.

Main Image: Lights from mobile phones in Bucharest on February, 2017. Credit: ANDREI PUNGOVSCHI / AFP / Getty Images )

04Carbon - the backbone of life20170814

Why is all known life built on carbon?

Carbon is widely considered to be the key element in forming life. It's at the centre of DNA, and the molecules upon which all living things rely.

Monica Grady, Professor of Planetary Science at the Open University, explores the nature of carbon, from its formation in distant stars to its uses and abuses here on earth.

She looks at why it forms the scaffold upon which living organisms are built, and how the mechanisms involved have helped inform the development of new carbon based technology, and products - from telephones to tennis rackets.

One form of carbon is graphene which offers great promise in improving solar cells and batteries, and introducing a whole new range of cheaper more flexible electronics.

Carbon is also the key component of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane. To counter some of the effects of man-made climate change, Scientists are now developing novel ways to speed up this mechanism - using waste materials created from mining and industry.

Monica Grady also looks to space, and the significance of carbon in the far reaches of the universe. There is lots of carbon in space, some in forms we might recognise as the precursors to molecules. As elemental carbon seems to be everywhere what are the chances of carbon based life elsewhere?

Image: Steam and exhaust rise from the chemical company Oxea (front) and the coking plant January 6, 2017 in Oberhausen, Germany.
Photo by Lukas Schulze Getty Images

04Carbon - The Backbone Of Life20170814

Why is all known life built on carbon?

Carbon is widely considered to be the key element in forming life. It's at the centre of DNA, and the molecules upon which all living things rely.

Monica Grady, Professor of Planetary Science at the Open University, explores the nature of carbon, from its formation in distant stars to its uses and abuses here on earth.

She looks at why it forms the scaffold upon which living organisms are built, and how the mechanisms involved have helped inform the development of new carbon based technology, and products - from telephones to tennis rackets.

One form of carbon is graphene which offers great promise in improving solar cells and batteries, and introducing a whole new range of cheaper more flexible electronics.

Carbon is also the key component of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane. To counter some of the effects of man-made climate change, Scientists are now developing novel ways to speed up this mechanism - using waste materials created from mining and industry.

Monica Grady also looks to space, and the significance of carbon in the far reaches of the universe. There is lots of carbon in space, some in forms we might recognise as the precursors to molecules. As elemental carbon seems to be everywhere what are the chances of carbon based life elsewhere?

Image: Steam and exhaust rise from the chemical company Oxea (front) and the coking plant January 6, 2017 in Oberhausen, Germany.
Photo by Lukas Schulze Getty Images

05Silicon - The World's Building Block20170828

The key component of rocks, sand and materials from glass and concrete to microelectronics

Silicon is literally everywhere in both the natural and built environment, from the dominance of silicate rocks in the earth crust, to ubiquitous sand in building materials and as the basis for glass.

We've also harnessed silicon's properties as a semiconductor to build the modern electronics industry - without silicon personal computers and smartphones would simply not exist.

Silicon is also found widely across the universe. It is formed in stars, particularly when they explode. And the similarities between how silicon and carbon form chemical bonds has led many to wonder whether there could be silicon based life elsewhere - perhaps in some far flung part of the galaxy where carbon is not as abundant as here on earth.

As well as discussing the potential for silicon based life on other planets, Birkbeck University astrobiologist Dr Louisa Preston considers the varied uses of silicon here on earth, from its dominance in our built environment to its driving role in artificial intelligence and its ability to harness the sun's energy.

Image: Lump of silicon on solar panels
Credit: wloven/Getty Images

05Silicon - The World's Building Block20170828

The key component of rocks, sand and materials from glass and concrete to microelectronics

Silicon is literally everywhere in both the natural and built environment, from the dominance of silicate rocks in the earth crust, to ubiquitous sand in building materials and as the basis for glass.

We've also harnessed silicon's properties as a semiconductor to build the modern electronics industry - without silicon personal computers and smartphones would simply not exist.

Silicon is also found widely across the universe. It is formed in stars, particularly when they explode. And the similarities between how silicon and carbon form chemical bonds has led many to wonder whether there could be silicon based life elsewhere - perhaps in some far flung part of the galaxy where carbon is not as abundant as here on earth.

As well as discussing the potential for silicon based life on other planets, Birkbeck University astrobiologist Dr Louisa Preston considers the varied uses of silicon here on earth, from its dominance in our built environment to its driving role in artificial intelligence and its ability to harness the sun's energy.

Image: Lump of silicon on solar panels
Credit: wloven/Getty Images

06Lead20180226

From the plumbing of ancient Rome, to lead acid batteries, paint, petrol and a dangerous legacy, the metal lead has seen a myriad of uses and abuses over thousands of years. In bullets, and poisons it has killed us both quickly and slowly, and yet its malleability, low melting point and resistance to corrosion make it a fantastic material for all kinds of containers and water proofing. And it is key to one of the most commonly used, and ignored, devices on the planet, the car battery.

However it's only recently that the serious impact of lead poisoning on the development of children's brains has come to light.
Uta Frith, Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development at University College London, who studied the impact of lead poisoning in the 1970s and 80s, journeys with lead from the iron age to the present day delving into the history and scandal associated with this often overlooked element.

Photo: BBC Copyright

The impact of the use and abuse of lead on humanity.