Philip Ball tells the story of Madame Lavoisier; translator of oxygen. At a time when science was almost a closed book to women, Madame Marie Anne Lavoisier’s skills were indispensable. A translator, illustrator and critic of scientific papers, she learnt chemistry herself and helped her husband Antoine Lavoisier develop his theory of the role played by oxygen in combustion. As modern science was taking shape it lacked any universal language, so communication in many tongues was vital to stay ahead of the game. Even today there is debate as to who can really be considered the discoverer of oxygen, but Madame Lavoisier’s gift for translation helped her husband compete against English rivals and banish their theories. Come the French Revolution however, Anton was branded a traitor to the state and sentenced to death. By a cruel twist of fate Marie lost both husband and father to the guillotine on the same day.
Philip Ball talks to Patricia Fara at the University of Cambridge, about the largely unrecognised contribution that women like Marie Anne Lavoisier made to the early days of modern science, and to Michael Gordin of Princeton University about the importance of scientific translation in the past and how it features today,
Picture: French chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, Credit: Getty Images
Galileo's lost letter
Galileo famously insisted in the early 17th Century that the Earth goes round the Sun and not vice versa – an idea that got him into deep trouble with the Catholic Church. In 1633 Galileo was put on trial for heresy by the Inquisition, and was threatened with imprisonment, or worse, if he did not recant. Galileo spent the rest of his days under house arrest and is now seen by some as a near-martyr to science in the face of unyielding religious doctrine. But the discovery of a letter questions the received version of events. Philip Ball tells the story of the relationship between Galileo, the church and his fellow professors.
Philip talks to science historians professor Paula Findlen of Stanford University and professor Mary Jane Rubenstein of Wesleyan University about Galileo's time and about the history of the relationship between science and religion.
(Picture: Galileo demonstrating his telescope. Credit: Getty Images)
Maintaining friendships is one of the most cognitively demanding things we do, according to Professor of Evolutionary Psychology Robin Dunbar. So why do we bother?
Robin has spent his life trying to answer this deceptively simple question. For most of his twenties, he lived with a herd of five hundred gelada monkeys in the Ethiopian highlands. He studied their social behaviour and concluded that an ability to get on with each other was just as important as finding food, for the survival of the species. Animals that live in large groups are less likely to get eaten by predators. When funding for animal studies dried up in the 1980s, he turned his attention to humans. and discovered there’s an upper limit to the number of real friends we can have, both in the real world and on social media.
Katherine Joy studies moon rock. She has studied lunar samples that were brought to earth by the Apollo missions (382kg in total) and hunted for lunar meteorites in Antarctica, camping on ice for weeks on end and travelling around on a skidoo.
Working at the forefront of the second wave of lunar exploration, she studied remote sensing data from Europe’s first mission to the moon, Smart 1 which launched in 2003 and data from many subsequent missions. She tells Jim Al-Khalili why she believes the moon is the most exciting destination in our solar system and explains what it can tell us about the long history of planet earth.
Beneath the magnificent desolation of the moon’s surface, multicoloured rocks contain vital clues about the history of our solar system. Every crater on the moon is evidence of a collision and the chemistry of these rocks tells us when these collisions took place. Katherine’s research supports the idea that a period known as the late heavy bombardment was a particularly turbulent time. Could the late heavy bombardment explain the origin of life on earth?
Sir Gregory Winter
In an astonishing story of a scientific discovery, Greg Winter tells Jim Al-Khalili how decades of curiosity-driven research led to a revolution in medicine.
Forced to temporarily abandon his work in the lab when a road rage incident left him with a paralysed right arm, Greg Winter spent several months looking at the structure of proteins. Looking at the stunning computer graphics made the pain in his arm go away. It also led him to a Nobel Prize winning idea: to ‘humanise’ mouse antibodies. A visit to an old lady in hospital made Greg determined to put his research to good use. He fought hard to ensure open access to the technology he invented and set up a start up company to encourage the development of therapeutic drugs. It took years to persuade anyone to fund his Nobel Prize winning idea that led to the creation of an entirely new class of drugs, known as monoclonal antibodies. In 2018, the market for these drugs, which include Humira for rheumatoid arthritis and Herceptin for breast cancer, was worth $70 billion.