Science Stories [Discovery] [World Service]

Episodes

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Barbara Mclintock - Discovery2018040920180410 (WS)
20180415 (WS)

Philip Ball tells the story of US geneticist and 1983 Nobel prize winner Barbara McLintock

Explorations in the world of science.

Barbara McClintock’s work on the genetics of corn won her a Nobel prize in 1983. Her research on jumping genes challenged the over-simplified picture of chromosomes and DNA that Watson and Crick’s discovery has all too often been used to support. During the half century that she worked at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory she became something of a living legend, a pioneer in a time when women weren’t expected to take much interest in science. In that story, she made a profound discovery that her male colleagues dismissed for years, leaving her out in the cold until they finally realized that it was true and granted her a belated Nobel Prize.

Philip Ball tells the story of Barbara McLintock's life and work, from her early preference for sports, for solitude, and for intellectual life, that disturbed her parents, to her meticulous research on corn. In conversation with her recent biographer, Dr Nathaniel Comfort of Johns Hopkins University, he explores the facts and the fictions that grew up around her. Philip Ball talks about the legacy of her discovery of jumping genes with Professor Greg Hannon of the Cancer Research UK Institute at Cambridge University, who spent 25 years working in the McLintock Laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor.

Picture Corn Cobs, Credit: Philippe Huguen/AFP/GettyImages)

D'arcy Thompson - Discovery2018040220180403 (WS)
20180408 (WS)

A man who put maths into biology and saw physics in shells, seeds and bees 100 years ago

Explorations in the world of science.

One hundred years ago D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson published On Growth and Form, a book with a mission to put maths into biology. He showed how the shapes, forms and growth processes we see in the living world aren’t some arbitrary result of evolution’s blind searching, but are dictated by mathematical rules. A flower, a honeycomb, a dragonfly’s wing: it’s not sheer chance that these look the way they do. But can these processes be explained by physics? D'Arcy Thompson loved nature’s shapes and influenced a whole new field of systems biology, architects, designers and artists, including Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

Presented by Phillip Ball.

Picture: Corn shell, Getty Images

Discovery2018040220180403 (WS)
20180408 (WS)

A man who put maths into biology and saw physics in shells, seeds and bees 100 years ago

Explorations in the world of science.

One hundred years ago D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson published On Growth and Form, a book with a mission to put maths into biology. He showed how the shapes, forms and growth processes we see in the living world aren’t some arbitrary result of evolution’s blind searching, but are dictated by mathematical rules. A flower, a honeycomb, a dragonfly’s wing: it’s not sheer chance that these look the way they do. But can these processes be explained by physics? D'Arcy Thompson loved nature’s shapes and influenced a whole new field of systems biology, architects, designers and artists, including Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

Presented by Phillip Ball.

Picture: Corn shell, Getty Images

One hundred years ago D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson published On Growth and Form, a book with a mission to put maths into biology. He showed how the shapes, forms and growth processes we see in the living world aren’t some arbitrary result of evolution’s blind searching, but are dictated by mathematical rules. A flower, a honeycomb, a dragonfly’s wing: it’s not sheer chance that these look the way they do. But can these processes be explained by physics? D'Arcy Thompson loved nature’s shapes and influenced a whole new field of systems biology, architects, designers and artists, including Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

Picture: Corn shell, Getty Images

Discovery2018040920180410 (WS)
20180415 (WS)

Philip Ball tells the story of US geneticist and 1983 Nobel prize winner Barbara McLintock

Explorations in the world of science.

Barbara McClintock’s work on the genetics of corn won her a Nobel prize in 1983. Her research on jumping genes challenged the over-simplified picture of chromosomes and DNA that Watson and Crick’s discovery has all too often been used to support. During the half century that she worked at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory she became something of a living legend, a pioneer in a time when women weren’t expected to take much interest in science. In that story, she made a profound discovery that her male colleagues dismissed for years, leaving her out in the cold until they finally realized that it was true and granted her a belated Nobel Prize.

Philip Ball tells the story of Barbara McLintock's life and work, from her early preference for sports, for solitude, and for intellectual life, that disturbed her parents, to her meticulous research on corn. In conversation with her recent biographer, Dr Nathaniel Comfort of Johns Hopkins University, he explores the facts and the fictions that grew up around her. Philip Ball talks about the legacy of her discovery of jumping genes with Professor Greg Hannon of the Cancer Research UK Institute at Cambridge University, who spent 25 years working in the McLintock Laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor.

Picture Corn Cobs, Credit: Philippe Huguen/AFP/GettyImages)

Philip Ball tells the story of Barbara McLintock's life and work, from her early preference for sports, for solitude, and for intellectual life, that disturbed her parents, to her meticulous research on corn. In conversation with her recent biographer, Dr Nathaniel Comfort of Johns Hopkins University, he explores the facts and the fictions that grew up around her. Philip Ball talks about the legacy of her discovery of jumping genes with Professor Greg Hannon of the Cancer Research UK Institute at Cambridge University, who spent 25 years working in the McLintock Laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor.

Picture Corn Cobs, Credit: Philippe Huguen/AFP/GettyImages)

01Alcuin Of York - Discovery2017121820171219 (WS)
20171224 (WS)

Philip Ball dives into the Dark Ages to reveal the author of the river crossing riddle

Explorations in the world of science.

The Dark Ages are often painted as an era of scholarly decline. The Western Roman Empire was on its way out, books were few and far between, and, if you believe the stereotype, mud-splattered peasants ran around in rags.

However, it was far more intellectually vibrant than you might imagine. Out of this era emerged a set of ‘problems to sharpen the young,’ including the famous river crossing puzzle that’s still taught in maths today. The presumed author of these riddles is Alcuin of York – ‘the most learned man in the world.’ And it was this monk and his puzzles that laid the foundations for a branch of mathematics called combinatorics – the thinking behind today’s computer coding and cryptography.

Philip Ball speaks to historian Mary Garrison from the University of York to learn of Alcuin's character and how he encouraged his students to learn for the sake of learning, as opposed to salvation. And University College London mathematician Hannah Fry shows Philip just how much of a role combinatorics plays in today’s world.

Picture: White horned goat chewing a cabbage leaf, Credit: Oxana Medvedeva

Producer: Graihagh Jackson

Producer: Graihagh Jackson

01Discovery2017121820171219 (WS)
20171224 (WS)

Philip Ball dives into the Dark Ages to reveal the author of the river crossing riddle

Explorations in the world of science.

The Dark Ages are often painted as an era of scholarly decline. The Western Roman Empire was on its way out, books were few and far between, and, if you believe the stereotype, mud-splattered peasants ran around in rags.

However, it was far more intellectually vibrant than you might imagine. Out of this era emerged a set of ‘problems to sharpen the young,’ including the famous river crossing puzzle that’s still taught in maths today. The presumed author of these riddles is Alcuin of York – ‘the most learned man in the world.’ And it was this monk and his puzzles that laid the foundations for a branch of mathematics called combinatorics – the thinking behind today’s computer coding and cryptography.

Philip Ball speaks to historian Mary Garrison from the University of York to learn of Alcuin's character and how he encouraged his students to learn for the sake of learning, as opposed to salvation. And University College London mathematician Hannah Fry shows Philip just how much of a role combinatorics plays in today’s world.

Picture: White horned goat chewing a cabbage leaf, Credit: Oxana Medvedeva

Producer: Graihagh Jackson

01The Real Cyrano De Bergerac2018073020180731 (WS)
20180805 (WS)

Philip Ball on the real Cyrano de Bergerac and his 17th century space ship.

Explorations in the world of science.

Philip Ball reveals the real Cyrano de Bergerac - forget the big nosed fictional character - and his links to 17th Century space flight. Cyrano was a soldier, gambler and duellist who retired from military exploits on account of his wounds around 1639, at the grand old age of 20. But he studied at university and, to judge from the books he went on to write, he was well versed in the philosophical and scientific debates of his day. He designed spaceships to travel to the moon and to the sun. Philip discusses the life and times of Cyrano with Mary Baine Campbell of Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

Journeys to the New World in the seventeenth century were voyages of trade - and ultimately of colonisation. Today, the profit motive has returned to space travel. Efforts to develop spacecraft and to send people into space are increasingly being conducted not just by government agencies but by private companies, in search again of land and minerals. Philip discusses the control of exploitation of space with Patricia Lewis of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Producer: Erika Wright

Picture: To the moon by rocket-propelled box, 1640 as foreseen by Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655). Photo by: Universal History Archive / UIG via Getty Images)

Picture: To the moon by rocket-propelled box, 1640 as foreseen by Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655). Photo by: Universal History Archive / UIG via Getty Images)

02Discovery2017122520171226 (WS)

How a 13-year old girl mapped metamorphosis in the 1600s. Naomi Alderman presents

Explorations in the world of science.

Maria Merian was born in 1647. At the time of her birth, Shakespeare had been dead for 30 years; Galileo had only just stood trial for arguing that the Earth moved around the Sun. And yet, here in Germany, was a child who would become an important but oft-forgotten figure of science.

Aged 13, she mapped out metamorphosis, catching caterpillars from her garden and painting them in exquisite detail. At that point, most believed that caterpillars spontaneously generated from cabbages and maggots materialised from rotten meat. She later voyaged to Suriname in South America to pursue pupae further, discovering not just new species but also the conditions needed for their survival.

Some call her the first field ecologist; others admire her for her eloquent brushwork. However, her studies will help today’s biologists plot which insects lived where. These data are invaluable because this could help scientists predict what species will survive climate change.

Naomi Alderman discusses the life and legacy of Maria Merian with biologist and historian Kay Etheridge from Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania and biologist Kathy Willis from Kew Gardens.

Picture: Belly-ache bush (Jatropha gossypifolia) with metamorphosis of a giant sphinx moth (Cocytius antaeus), created by Maria Sibylla Merian and Joseph Mulder, Credit: GRI Digital Collections

Producer: Graihagh Jackson

Producer: Graihagh Jackson

02Making Natural Products In The Lab2018080620180807 (WS)
20180812 (WS)

How 19th century chemist Wohler made a natural product in the lab

Explorations in the world of science.

Philip Ball tells the science story of German chemist Friedrich Wöhler’s creation of urea, an organic substance previously thought only to be produced by living creatures. Yet in 1828 Wöhler created urea from decidedly non-living substances. It was exciting because the accidental transformation seemed to cross a boundary: from inorganic to organic, from inert matter to a product of life. It’s a key moment in the history of chemistry but like many scientific advances, this one has also been turned into something of a myth. To read some accounts, this humble act of chemical synthesis sounds almost akin to the 'vital spark of being' described by Mary Shelley in her book published ten years previously, when Victor Frankenstein brought dead flesh back to life.
Philip Ball sorts out fact from fiction in what Wohler really achieved in conversation with Peter Ramberg of Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, and finds out about chemical synthesis of natural products today from Professor Sarah O’Connor of the John Innes Centre.

Producer: Erika Wright

(Image: Friedrich Wohler, c 1850. Photogravure after a drawing by Hoffman, c 1850. From a collection of portraits of scientists published by Photographische Gesellschaft, Berlin, c 1910. Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

(Image: Friedrich Wohler, c 1850. Photogravure after a drawing by Hoffman, c 1850. From a collection of portraits of scientists published by Photographische Gesellschaft, Berlin, c 1910. Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

02Maria Merian - Discovery2017122520171226 (WS)
20171231 (WS)

How a 13-year old girl mapped metamorphosis in the 1600s. Naomi Alderman presents

Explorations in the world of science.

Maria Merian was born in 1647. At the time of her birth, Shakespeare had been dead for 30 years; Galileo had only just stood trial for arguing that the Earth moved around the Sun. And yet, here in Germany, was a child who would become an important but oft-forgotten figure of science.

Aged 13, she mapped out metamorphosis, catching caterpillars from her garden and painting them in exquisite detail. At that point, most believed that caterpillars spontaneously generated from cabbages and maggots materialised from rotten meat. She later voyaged to Suriname in South America to pursue pupae further, discovering not just new species but also the conditions needed for their survival.

Some call her the first field ecologist; others admire her for her eloquent brushwork. However, her studies will help today’s biologists plot which insects lived where. These data are invaluable because this could help scientists predict what species will survive climate change.

Naomi Alderman discusses the life and legacy of Maria Merian with biologist and historian Kay Etheridge from Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania and biologist Kathy Willis from Kew Gardens.

Picture: Belly-ache bush (Jatropha gossypifolia) with metamorphosis of a giant sphinx moth (Cocytius antaeus), created by Maria Sibylla Merian and Joseph Mulder, Credit: GRI Digital Collections

Producer: Graihagh Jackson

Producer: Graihagh Jackson

02Urea And The W\u00f6hler Myth2018080620180807 (WS)

Philip Ball tells the story of German chemist Friedrich W\u00f6hler's creation of urea.

Explorations in the world of science.

Philip Ball tells the story of German chemist Friedrich Wöhler’s creation of urea, an organic substance previously thought only to be produced by living creatures. Yet in 1928 Wöhler created urea from decidedly non-living substances. It was exciting because the accidental transformation seemed to cross a boundary: from inorganic to organic, from inert matter to a product of life. It’s a key moment in the history of chemistry but like many scientific advances, this one has also been turned into something of a myth. To read some accounts, this humble act of chemical synthesis sounds almost akin to the 'vital spark of being' described by Mary Shelley in her book published ten years previously, when Victor Frankenstein brought dead flesh back to life.

Philip Ball's story is of what Friedrich Wöhler’s creation of urea really meant.

(Image: Friedrich Wohler, c 1850. Photogravure after a drawing by Hoffman, c 1850. From a collection of portraits of scientists published by Photographische Gesellschaft, Berlin, c 1910. Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

(Image: Friedrich Wohler, c 1850. Photogravure after a drawing by Hoffman, c 1850. From a collection of portraits of scientists published by Photographische Gesellschaft, Berlin, c 1910. Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

03Descartes' ""daughter""2018081320180814 (WS)
20180819 (WS)

Philip Ball goes back to the 17th Century to talk about Descartes and his ""daughter"

Explorations in the world of science.

There's a story told about French philosopher René Descartes and his daughter. He boards a ship for a voyage over the North Sea with a large wooden box which he insists be handled with such great care that the sea captain’s curiosity is aroused. When Descartes is out of his cabin the sea captain opens the box and is horrified to find a life sized automaton inside. He's so shocked he throws the "daughter" overboard.

Descartes championed a view of nature in which everything happened because of the physical forces acting between its constituent parts: nature as a machine. It was a coolly rational vision that caught the scientific spirit of the seventeenth century. He was fascinated by automata and what they tell us about what it is to be human.

Philip Ball tells the story of Descartes and his "daughter" and his writings about humans and machines. He finds out more about the thirst for mechanical wonders and what it said about theories of the human body in Descartes’ time, from historian of science Simon Schaffer of Cambridge University. And Kanta Dihar of the Centre for the Future of Intelligence also at Cambridge University talks about current research into AIs, driven purely by some mechanism of formal logic, that can mimic the capabilities of the human mind, and how contemporary culture explores our fears about them.

Picture: People And Robots Modern Human And Artificial Intelligence Futuristic Mechanism Technology, Credit: Getty Images

Picture: People And Robots Modern Human And Artificial Intelligence Futuristic Mechanism Technology, Credit: Getty Images

03Lise Meitner - Discovery2018010820180109 (WS)
20180114 (WS)

How physicist Lise Meitner unlocked the science of the atom bomb that cost Hitler dearly

Explorations in the world of science.

Philip Ball reveals the dramatic tale of Lise Meitner, the humanitarian physicist of Jewish descent, who unlocked the science of the atom bomb after a terrifying escape from Hitler's Germany. One of the most brilliant nuclear scientists working in Germany her flight from terror cost Hitler’s regime dearly.

In the early 20th Century it was barely possible for women to work in science at all and yet Einstein once called Meitner Germany’s own Marie Curie. It was Meitner’s insight that began the nuclear age and her story remains ever relevant, as the threat of nuclear conflict lies once again over the world.

Philip Ball talks to historian Dr Patricia Fara about Lise Meitner and her research and to Patricia Lewis of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons or ICAN, based in Geneva, which this year was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for its work in trying to reverse nuclear proliferation, about Meitner’s legacy today.

Picture: Lise Meitner, Credit: Central Press/Getty Images

04Humphry Davy - Discovery2018011520180116 (WS)
20180121 (WS)

The story of how Humphry Davy discovered laughing gas in 1799.

Explorations in the world of science.

In Bristol in 1799, a young man started to experiment with newly discovered gases, looking for a cure for tuberculosis. Humphry Davy, aged 20, nearly killed himself inhaling carbon monoxide. Nitrous oxide was next. It was highly pleasurable, ‘particularly in the chest and extremities’ and he began to dance around his laboratory ‘like a madman’, before passing out. By day, he gave the gas to patients, carefully noting their reactions. In the evenings, he invited his friends over to have a laugh (with assistants on standby to revive them with oxygen, as needed).

The Romantic poets, Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge could barely contain their excitement.
During one session, Davy noted that the gas numbed his toothache and suggested that it could perhaps be used during surgical operations. But it was another fifty years before nitrous oxide was used by doctors. Throughout the 20th century, it was widely used during dentistry and to numb the pain of childbirth. (Nitrous oxide is the gas in ‘gas and air’: the ‘air’ is oxygen).And it still is today, but less so. (It’s a potent greenhouse gas that damages the ozone layer, it’s difficult to store and there are side-effects). But, just as medical use is diminishing, recreational use is on the rise.

A new generation of pleasure seekers have started experimenting, just as Davy did, despite the associated risks of injuries caused by fainting and death by suffocation.

Naomi Alderman tells how a gas that created ‘ecstatic lunatics’ came to be used as an anaesthetic, with help from biographer, Richard Holmes and anaesthetist, Kevin Fong.

Picture: Humphry Davy and Anaesthesia, Credit: Science Photo Library

04Hypatia: The Murdered Mathematician2018082020180821 (WS)
20180826 (WS)

Naomi Alderman on the life and death of Hypatia, the ancient Greek mathematician

Explorations in the world of science.

Naomi Alderman's tale is a murder mystery, the story of Hypatia, the mathematician murdered by a mob in the learned city of Alexandria, around the year 415 CE. Hypatia was a communicator of science, tackling difficult maths and teaching it to her students. This was incredibly important work. It was enough, at the time, to make her Alexandria’s pre-eminent mathematician, and probably therefore the leading mathematician in the world.

And there’s historical evidence that Hypatia made some discoveries and innovations of her own. She invented a new and more efficient method of long division. In a time before electronic calculators, the actual business of doing sums was an arduous part of engineering or astronomy, and any improvement in efficiency was very welcome.

All quite innocent science, so why did Hypatia end up being murdered by a mob? Natalie Haynes tells the inside story to Naomi Alderman. And Professor Edith Hall discusses Hypatia's legacy.

Picture: Death of Hypatia of Alexandria (c 370 CE - March 415 AD), Credit: Nastasic/Getty Images

Picture: Death of Hypatia of Alexandria (c 370 CE - March 415 AD), Credit: Nastasic/Getty Images

05Mary Anning And Fossil Hunting2018082720180828 (WS)
20180902 (WS)

Naomi Alderman tells the science story of how Mary Anning, who discovered many important fossils.

Explorations in the world of science.

Mary Anning lived in Lyme Regis on what is now known as the Jurassic Coast in the first half of the 19th century. Knowing the shore from childhood and with a remarkable eye for detection she was extremely successful in finding fossils. In 1812 she unearthed parts of an Icthyosaur and in 1823 she discovered the first skeleton of what became known as a Plesiosaurus – a long-necked, flippered creature with a tiny head. It looked a bit like an elongated turtle with no shell.

Naomi Alderman tells the science story of how Mary Anning, a poor and relatively uneducated young woman, became the supplier of the best fossils to the gentlemen geologists who were beginning to understand that the earth was very old and had been inhabited by strange extinct creatures. Naomi talks to Tracy Chevalier, author of Remarkable Creatures, a novel about Mary Anning, about her life and relationship with the geologists of the time, and to Dr Susannah Maidment, Curator of Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, about fossil hunting today.

How a poor woman became one of 19th-century Britain's most successful fossil finders

Mary Anning lived in Lyme Regis on what is now known as the Jurassic Coast in the first half of the 19th century. Knowing the shore from childhood and with a remarkable eye for detection she was extremely successful in finding fossils. In 1812 she unearthed parts of an Icthyosaur and in 1823 she discovered the first skeleton of what became known as a Plesiosaurus – a long-necked, flippered creature with a tiny head. It looked a bit like an elongated turtle with no shell.

Image: Lyme Regis, from Charmouth, Dorset 1814-1825 by William Daniell (Credit: Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Image: Lyme Regis, from Charmouth, Dorset 1814-1825 by William Daniell (Credit: Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

0701Lucretius, Sheep And Atoms2019010720190108 (WS)
20190114 (WS)

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.

Explorations in the world of science.

0702Kepler's Snowflake2019011420190115 (WS)
20190121 (WS)

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.

Explorations in the world of science.

0703Ibn Al-haytham: The Father Of Modern Optics2019012120190122 (WS)
20190128 (WS)

Philip Ball tells the science story of Ibn al Haytham, a native of present-day Iraq, who in the early eleventh 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.

Philip Ball tells the story of Ibn al Haytham, the 11th century father of modern optics.

Explorations in the world of science.

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.

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.

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.