Science Stories - Series 7 [Discovery]


01Lucretius, Sheep And Atoms2019010720190108 (WS)
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2000 years ago Lucretius composed a long poem that theorised about atoms and the natural world. Written in the first century BCE, during a chaotic and frightening time when the Roman Republic was collapsing, Lucretius encouraged people to feel free through contemplating the physics of the Universe. He said that despite living through a time of bloody civil wars and dictatorship people should not believe they were sheep who had to follow those in power.

Naomi discovers that the poem is an epic, beautiful and persuasive piece of work. It begins with a discussion of atoms. Lucretius, like Epicurus, followed the Greek tradition in believing that the universe is composed of tiny, indivisible particles. De Rerum Natura asks us to consider that all that really exists in the universe are these atoms and the void between them. Atoms are indestructible, the number of atoms in the universe is infinite and so is the void in which the atoms move. What Lucretius is saying here was revolutionary then – and still has the power to surprise. He’s saying that there are no supernatural forces controlling our lives, no fate pulling the strings, if there are gods they’re made of atoms just like everything else. There is nothing else.

Naomi discusses the life of Lucretius and his poem with classicist Dr Emma Woolerton of Durham University. And she talks to particle physicist Professor Jonathan Butterworth of UCL about which of his theories still holds water today.

Picture: Gathered sheep, Credit: Chris Strickland, Getty Images

Two thousand years ago Lucretius composed about atoms and the natural world

Explorations in the world of science.

02Kepler's Snowflake2019011420190115 (WS)
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The Six Cornered Snowflake, a booklet written by Johannes Kepler as a New Year's gift, sought to explain the intricate and symmetrical shape of winter's tiny stars of snow. His insightful speculations about minerals and geometry were the beginning of the modern understanding of crystals.

Philip Ball tells the story of how Kepler became a key figure in the scientific revolution of the 17th Century. He was a precocious mathematician who became an adviser to Emperor Rudolf II in 1600. Although he contributed to the idea that the sun, not the earth, was the centre of the solar system, his role at the court was to be an astrologer.

Philip brings the story of the shape of the snowflakes up to date. It was only 20 years ago with the development of the maths of fractals that we got to understand the formation of the myriad patterns of snowflakes.

Philip Ball tells the story of Johannes Kepler and the six cornered snowflake.

Explorations in the world of science.

03Ibn Al-haytham: The Father Of Modern Optics2019012120190122 (WS)
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Philip Ball tells the story of Ibn al-Haytham, a native of present-day Iraq, who in the early 11th Century, showed how light and the human eye collaborate to produce our sense of vision.

Abu Ali al-Hassan ibn al-Haytham was one of the many Arabic scholars who took the science and philosophy of the ancient world and extended it, not least by finding out if it actually fitted with our everyday experience. At this time in the 1000s the Islamic world of the Middle East was one of the most intellectually advanced civilizations.

Today we know that vision is only partly explained by how light enters the eye – because the eye is not after all really like a camera, passively recording the scene in front of it. The brain has to work harder than that. As far as the brain is concerned, the eye supplies only clues – sometimes imperfect, ambiguous, conflicting. The brain’s job is to use those clues to make a good guess at what is there and what is actually happening in the world that we see.

Philip Ball discusses the life and times of Ibn al Haytham with Jim al-Khalili, professor of physics at University of Surrey and author of Pathfinders, a book about the Golden Age of Arabic Science, who was born in Iraq. Philip meets Harriet Allen of Nottingham University who is trying to understand in detail the complex process of vision, in particular what happens in the brain to give us the sense of vision.

The Arabic scholar who showed how light and the human eye produce our sense of vision

Explorations in the world of science.