Episodes

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0101Starlings And Social Networks2019061720191119 (R4)Starling murmurations, those swirling, shifting sky-patterns made by hundreds of birds moving in synchrony, are one of nature's greatest spectacles. How do they avoid crashing into each other? Becky Ripley and Emily Knight delve into the maths behind the movement with some computer modelling to help them chart the flight patterns, and discover the secret.

As for us humans, sadly we don't fly together thought the sky in swirling clouds. But there ARE patterns to how we interact with one another. Like a ripple of movement, travelling through a cloud of starlings, ideas can spread through social media with blistering speed. Here too, computer modelling can help us chart how opinions morph as we react to those around us. Do we have more in common with the birds than we think?

What can the patterns in a starling murmuration tell us about the way our ideas spread?

The mystery and astonishing complexity of the natural world.

As for us humans, sadly we don't fly together through the sky in swirling clouds. But there ARE patterns to how we interact with one another. Like a ripple of movement, travelling through a cloud of starlings, ideas can spread through social media with blistering speed. Here too, computer modelling can help us chart how opinions morph as we react to those around us. Do we have more in common with the birds than we think?

Featuring Jamie Wood from the University of York, and Dr Jennifer Golbeck from the University of Maryland.

0102Sea-sponges And The Illusion Of Self2019061820191126 (R4)The humble sea sponge has been around for over 500 million years. We may think of them as ‘simple' animals, with no brain, no nerves and no organs. But they have a pretty good party trick up their fleshy sleeves. Push a sponge through a mesh, until all that remains is a cloud of cells. Pour those cells into a tank, and watch as the cells reform themselves, like the terminator, back into a sponge.

Becky Ripley and Emily Knight ask: is it the same sponge it was before?

In the human world, nobody is queueing up to be forced through a discombobulating mesh. But enter the world of science fiction and there's something that's not far off… the teleportation machine. Would you allow yourself to be dissolved into a molecular cloud and flung through space and time? And would the ‘you' at the other end really be the same ‘you' that left?

Breaking down the illusion of self, with help from the humble sea sponge

The mystery and astonishing complexity of the natural world.

Featuring Professor Sally Leys from the University of Alberta, and Philosopher Charlie Huenemann from Utah State University.

0103The Portuguese Man O'war And The Individual2019061920191203 (R4)Strange things dwell out in the open ocean. Bobbing atop the waves, Becky Ripley and Emily Knight meet one such creature, the Portuguese Man O'War. With its bulbous air-sacs and trailing tentacles you'd be forgiven for thinking it's a jellyfish, but you'd be wrong. It's a colony, a society of tiny individual animals, who work together to eat, hunt and reproduce as one.

In the Age of the Individual, we humans like to think of ourselves as self-sufficient little nodes who don't need nobody. But that perspective gets called into question when you consider where we live. Thanks to some complex maths and some incredible data-crunching, we're beginning to see the cities we inhabit in a different light. They grow, move, breathe, and die, just like a living organism, according to strict mathematical principles. Just like polyps in a Man O' War, are we really any more than cogs in a machine?

Are we one or are we many? Examining individualism via a colonial jellyfish

The mystery and astonishing complexity of the natural world.

Featuring Marine Biologist Dr John Copley from the University of Southampton, and Geoffrey West, Theoretical Physicist from the Santa Fe Institute.

0104Parasites And Personality2019062020191210 (R4)If you think you're in control, think again.

What invisible forces might be guiding your behaviour, your decisions, your most intimate emotions? Becky Ripley and Emily Knight take a trip into the bizarre nightmare world of the undergrowth, and watch ‘zombie ants' stumble forward, blindly following the orders of the deadly fungi controlling their brains. Parasites often get the upper hand of their hosts, manipulating their behaviour in sometimes horrifying ways. But is that true of humans too? Could we be unknowingly subservient to creatures that live inside us? Do they wish us well, or might they be plotting our downfall?

Who controls your thoughts and actions? You? Or the things that live inside you?

The mystery and astonishing complexity of the natural world.

Featuring entomologist Dr David Hughes from Penn State University, and neuroscientist John Cryan from University College Cork.

0105Vole-love And Fidelity2019062120191217 (R4)Ah, true love. Who can quantify that heady rush, the joy of another's company, the unshakable bonds between one lover and another? Well, vole experts can.

This tiny rodent is not just an anagram of love, it can also teach us a lot about why we fall. And why we sometimes stray. Prairie Voles form life-long monogamous bonds, together until death they do part. Almost identical Meadow Voles don't, living the single life, and mating at will. It all comes down to brain chemistry. And it turns out, some of us are more Prairie Vole than others.

Lessons on love, and how to be faithful, from a rodent the size of a satsuma

The mystery and astonishing complexity of the natural world.

Featuring Dr Larry Young from the Emory University,, and author of 'Sex at Dawn', Chris Ryan.

0201Dog Poo And The Challenge Of Navigation2020111020210222 (R4)Naturebang is back. Becky Ripley and Emily Knight are again trying to make sense of what we humans are all about, with a little help from the natural world. And this week, they're getting lost.

Navigating our world is a challenge faced by every creature that moves. From dung beetles mapping the desert dunes, to eels circumnavigating the globe, each finds its own way about with unerring accuracy. How do they do it? And how is that going to help Becky and Emily get out of the woods?

The story of animal (and human) navigation is a story of the sun, the stars, magnetic fields, polarised light, and… dog poo. Yes, dog poo.

Featuring Michael S. Painter, Assistant Professor at Barry University, and John Edward Huth, Donner Professor of Science at Harvard University.

How do we navigate unfamiliar terrain? How do animals do it? And can dog poo help us out?

The mystery and astonishing complexity of the natural world.

0202Ants And Social Distancing2020111720210223 (R4)Becky Ripley and Emily Knight find out what ants teach us about surviving a pandemic.

As social animals, we're particularly susceptible to disease, so perhaps there are lessons to be learned from other sociable species in how we manage this. Ants are one of the most social species on the planet and it turns out they know a few things about self-isolation and social distancing.

The story of how we protect each other (and ourselves) is a story that takes us from the complex maze of an anthill to the equally complex maze of human etiquette. If you think social distancing is a new invention - or even a human invention - think again.

Featuring Dr Nathalie Stroeymeyt, Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol, and Michael de Barra, Lecturer in Psychology at Brunel University London.

Can ants teach us anything about how to avoid a pandemic? Or how to survive one?

The mystery and astonishing complexity of the natural world.

As social animals, we're particularly susceptible to disease, so perhaps there are lessons to be learned from other sociable species in how we manage this. Ants are one of the most social species on the planet, and it turns out they know a thing or two about self-isolation and social distancing.

0203Naked Mole Rats And Life Extension2020112420210224 (R4)Becky Ripley and Emily Knight examine the naked mole rat, a saber-toothed sausage of a rodent, which seems to defy the mammalian laws of aging. It lives way longer than what is expected of a rodent and is now the focus for much medical research as scientists try to understand more about their aging process in the name of human life extension.

Of course, we all want to age slower and live longer, but does that mean we should continually strive to extend human life expectancy forever and always? Beyond the ethics, there's also some big philosophical questions. How does a longer life span affect our sense of 'self'? And does living longer solve the problem of death?

Featuring Dr Rochelle Buffenstein, Senior Principal Investigator at Calico Life Sciences, and Julian Baggini, philosopher, journalist and author.

Why do naked mole rats live so long? And should we strive to live longer too?

The mystery and astonishing complexity of the natural world.

0204Slime Mould And Intelligence2020120120210225 (R4)Becky Ripley and Emily Knight celebrate the intelligence of a brainless slime mould. As single-cell protists, with no brain and no nervous system, slime moulds do not 'think' in human terms, but they can calculate and navigate complex systems with incredible efficiency and objectivity. With some help from a few oat flakes (slime moulds love oats).

One species in particular, Physarum Polycephalum, has proven itself to outwit us time and time again, from solving complex urban transportation problems to mapping the structures of the cosmic web. In doing so, it totally overthrows our human definition of intelligence, where we have positioned ourselves at the top of a big biological hierarchy. From the bottom up, slime mould is starting to uproot the whole system.

Featuring Merlin Sheldrake, writer of 'Entangled Life', and experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats.

What can a brainless single-cell organism teach us about our place in the world?

The mystery and astonishing complexity of the natural world.

Becky Ripley and Emily Knight celebrate the intelligence of a brainless slime mould. As single-cell protists, with no brain and no nervous system, slime moulds do not 'think' in human terms, but they can calculate and navigate complex systems with incredible efficiency and objectivity. With some help from a few oat flakes, because slime mould loves oats.

One species in particular, Physarum Polycephalum, has proven itself to outwit us time and time again, from solving complex urban transport problems to mapping the structures of the cosmic web. In doing so, it totally overthrows our human definition of intelligence, where we have positioned ourselves at the top of a big biological hierarchy. From the bottom up, slime mould is starting to uproot the whole system.

How can a brainless single-cell slime mould help to solve our most complex problems?

0205Dragon Lizards And The Gender Spectrum2020120820210226 (R4)Sex is simple. Or so we're taught; animals can be male or female. But even the briefest glance at the animal kingdom tells us that this simply isn't true. Some creatures have only one sex; some have three; some have none at all. Some animals are two sexes at the same time; some flip flop between them when the time is right. When evolution came to solve the problem of procreation, she did it in a myriad of mind-blowing ways.

When it comes to humans, it's even more complicated - we have this thing called Gender, too. It's often defined as the social and cultural side of sex, distinct from the biological. But that's not the full story.Becky Ripley and Emily Knight travel back to the dawn of human culture, and into the tangled depths of our genetic code, to try and unravel why we are the way we are, and why it matters so much that we understand it all properly.

Featuring Professor Jenny Graves, geneticist at La Trobe University, and the writer and scholar Meg-John Barker.

Animals can be male, female... or LOADS of other things. What are they? And what about us?

The mystery and astonishing complexity of the natural world.