Unexpected Elements podcast

Unexpected Elements

The news you know, the science you don’t. Unexpected Elements looks beyond everyday narratives to discover a goldmine of scientific stories and connections from around the globe. From Afronauts, to why we argue, to a deep dive on animal lifespans: see the world in a new way.

The news you know, the science you don’t. Unexpected Elements looks beyond everyday narratives to discover a goldmine of scientific stories and connections from around the globe. From Afronauts, to why we argue, to a deep dive on animal lifespans: see the world in a new way.

 

#225

An Unexpected Burger

Could a scientific burger compete against the fast food giants? We fear not! You will need: • Meat - A tick capable of inducing alpha gal syndrome, a disease that makes you allergic to red meat. • Garnish - Lettuce grown in space. (WARNING: it is more susceptible to bacterial infection than that grown on Earth). • Buns - A short but thick guide to the human buttocks with Heather Radke. Why do we humans have such large behinds? • Something sweet - We’ve chosen the humble baobab seed. An unusual tree indigenous to Madagascar, the subject of an incredibly successful conservation project. • Fries - Of course! The humble potato is threatened by climate change, what’s being done to futureproof it? Instructions: • Who are we kidding! There is no scientific method! • Bang it all together and feast your ears on this week’s show! Head chef/presenter: Marnie Chesterton Sous chefs/panellists: Candice Bailey and Affelia Wibisono Home ecs/producers: Harrison Lewis, Julia Ravey, Ben Motley and Noa Dowling ... Read more

14 Jun 2024

49 MINS

49:29

14 Jun 2024


#224

Balloon manoeuvres

After North Korean balloons delivered trash to South Korea, we explore balloons of all kinds, why they can be useful, and when they’re not. Scientists have been using balloons for a long time, from pig bladders dropped from great heights, to Michael Faraday inventing the rubber balloon. Floating through the air seems like a great, energy-efficient way to fly. So why isn’t the sky full of airships? And party balloons are fun… but do we want to waste our precious helium on parties? What is this limited gas worth saving for? Also, why you’re likely smarter than your grandparents were at your age, why snails climb up walls, and scientists looking at clouds from space. Presenter: MarnieChesterton Panellists: Andrada Fiscutean, Meral Jamal Guests: Prof Andrea Sella (University College London) and Prof Dave Hodgson (University of Exeter) Producer: Florian Bohr with Harrison Lewis, Julia Ravey and Noa Dowling ... Read more

07 Jun 2024

49 MINS

49:30

07 Jun 2024


#223

Eternal flames

As the Olympic torch makes its way through France, we investigate the fires that continually smoulder and those which are stomped out. You might expect snow to make a solid fire extinguisher, but in Canada, it is somehow keeping embers alight. These ‘Zombie fires’ keep burning through the winter, releasing huge amounts of carbon into the air and enhancing the tinderbox for summer wildfires. While wildfires leave trails of destruction, for some plants and animals, they act as a catalyst for life – helping them to spread their seeds or flower. And the extent of these blazes can also be marshalled by nature – with elephants and beavers building natural fire breaks into landscapes to prevent uncontrollable flames. We hear about when the first fires happened on Earth and how we can study ancient fires which have long since gone out. Plus, we unpick the key to monogamy (in mice), why cicadas love prime numbers as well as your thoughts on snakes... Presenter: Caroline Steel with Philistiah Mwatee and Chhavi Sachdev Producer: Alex Mansfield with Florian Bohr, Harrison Lewis, Julia Ravey and Noa Dowling Sound engineer: Emily Preston ... Read more

31 May 2024

49 MINS

49:30

31 May 2024


#222

A world going on underground

How would you feel if you spent more and more of your life underground? Could that be how more and more of us live in the future? Presenter Marnie Chesterton and panellists Candice Bailey in Johannesburg, South Africa and Tristan Ahtone in Helsinki, Finland dig into subterranean science. Did you know around a million people live underground in China's capital Beijing? Have you heard of the race to dig the deepest hole in the Earth? In this episode we explore how humans have been digging deep for over 3,000 years explorer Christian Clot tell us why living underground with no contact to the world above was a nicer experience that you might expect. ... Read more

24 May 2024

49 MINS

49:30

24 May 2024


#221

Winning Losers

In a competitive world, is it always best to finish first? A tribute to second place, second thoughts, and second opinions. You might assume that Olympic gold medallists have more successful lives than their silver-placed competitors. A study shows that on average winners die a year younger than the runners up, and earn less money. In the invasive jelly-fish wars of the Black Sea of recent years, it seems the second-comers prevailed over the voracious first-timers. And what about siblings? Does the first-born in a family really have any discernible advantage in life? Also, the potential perils of cutting-edge wearable medi-tech, the value of second opinions, and the chemical benefits of silver itself. Presented by Marnie Chesterton, with Godfred Boafo and Andrada Fiscutean Produced by Alex Mansfield, with Dan Welsh, Julia Ravey and Noa Dowling Sound by Gwynfor Jones ... Read more

17 May 2024

49 MINS

49:30

17 May 2024


#220

Unexpected birthday party

It’s time for an unexpected celebration and we look to science for advice on clothes, cake and how presenter Marnie and panellists Christine and Candice can improve their singing. We also hear about the sleuths who have tracked down an animal that’s been presumed extinct for almost a century, we help a listener find the answer to whether using sunscreen is stopping him from getting vitamin d and Marnie talks to the Dog Aging Project to ask why studying healthy ageing in our canine companions can lead to better health for people too. Presenter: Marnie Chesterton Panellists: Christine Yohannes and Candice Bailey Guests: Bryan Nichols, Pennsylvania State University and Matt Kaberline, founder of the Dog Aging Project. Producer: Tom Bonnett with Dan Welsh, Emily Knight, Julia Ravey and Noa Dowling ... Read more

10 May 2024

49 MINS

49:29

10 May 2024


#219

Horsey driverless cars and competitive cloning

The sight of horses running wild in a city leads panellist Tristan Ahtone in Helsinki to rethink how we rate horses' welfare, Chhavi Sachdev in Mumbai tells the story of the country that is cloning the Lionel Messi of horses for sport and presenter Marnie Chesterton finds out why roboticist Eakta Jain is studying horses to engineer better relationships between humans and autonomous vehicles. All that, plus the slippery record for the world's biggest snake, how the alphabet came to be and asteroid forcing scientists to reiterate 'it will not hit Earth'. ... Read more

03 May 2024

49 MINS

49:29

03 May 2024


#218

A scientific séance

Join the Unexpected team as they journey beyond the borders of reality to ask why we believe in the illogical. After a fraudulent psychic dupes 1.3 million Americans, panellist Camilla Mota turns to history for insight into how scientists debunk such con artists. The Unexpected library harbours secrets of paranormal experimentation and dead air live on the BBC, and panellist Phillys Mwatee reveals why our beliefs win out over hard evidence written in ink. Nevertheless, in a world rife with conspiracy and vaccine hesitancy, Melissa Kapulu from the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kilifi, Kenya, shares the fascinating scientific obstacles faced in the quest to eradicate malaria from Africa once and for all. Also hear how a Nigerian pastor and super-star has been making Melissa's job much harder, and life on fake mars. Presenter: Alex Lathbridge, Phillys Mwatee and Camilla Mota Producer: Harrison Lewis, Alex Mansfield and Noa Dowling ... Read more

26 Apr 2024

50 MINS

50:39

26 Apr 2024


#217

Computer memories and quantum futures

These days, over a trillion semiconductor microchips are made and shipped each year. The industry is worth eye-watering amounts, and since the 2020-2023 global shortage, nearly all governments are trying to get a slice of the industrial wafer. But what was it like just 40 years ago trying to get yourself a home computer when your communist leaders didn’t approve, and there were nowhere enough devices to go round anyway? Andrada Fiscutean spoke to some of the bootleggers. These days, not only are computing devices in just about everyone’s hands, they are mostly interconnected to vast arrays of machines collectively forming “the cloud”, which provides so much of our economic and scientific infrastructure. It is no longer about stand alone computing. But just maybe the deep future of computing lies in using individual atoms and photons as information-bearing digits. This is the basis of “quantum computing” which could use the properties and mechanics of the quantum scale to perform hugely complicated calculations in fractions of a second. Prof David Lucas of Oxford University physics department and colleagues are building some key demonstrators of the techniques we need to master. And just recently, they built an impressive manifestation of “Blind Quantum Computing”, which just might enable something like the quantum cloud of the future. Also, we have a look at an app for modern motorists that adjusts a piece of music to react to the movement of the car. Developed by Mercedes-AMG and the rapper Will.i.am, Christine Yohannes has been thinking about drivers becoming the musical maestros of their own journeys. Presented by Alex Lathbridge, with Andrada Fiscutean and Christine Yohannes. Produced by Alex Mansfield, with Harrison Lewis and Tom Bonnett. ... Read more

19 Apr 2024

49 MINS

49:27

19 Apr 2024


#216

Beyoncé, banjos and dancing chemistry

Beyonce's new album tops the charts with a reappraisal of who can do country music and the Unexpected Elements team has a hoedown. Panellist Christine Yohannes unearths new research that changes our understanding of the origins of cowboys. Chhavi Sachdev has a thing or two to teach Beyonce as she reveals why the banjo has it's characteristic twang and we meet a man with powerful chemistry - TikTok dance sensation Dr Andre Isaacs from the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts tells presenter Marnie Chesterton how dancing in his lab helps explain click chemistry. We also hear how new species could be given names that refer to the locations they're found in, we discuss whether mining is causing the Earth to shrink and, of course, eclipses make an appearance. We shed some light on how an eclipse over 100 years ago helped prove Einstein's theory of relativity. ... Read more

12 Apr 2024

49 MINS

49:30

12 Apr 2024


#215

Unexpected elections

In a year when billions of people have been to the ballot box, what do stickleback fish have to do with it? Alex Lathbridge, Tristan Ahtone and Candice Bailey discuss some unexpected elements of electoral studies. Can ancient geology really map election outcomes? What has machine learning done for polling? Psychologist Sandra Obradović drops in to share some of her expertise in the psychology of voting with the team. Plus, what does a solar eclipse have to do with dragons? Presenter: Alex Lathbridge, with Tristan Ahtone and Candice Bailey Producer: Katie Tomsett, with Harrison Lewis, Alex Mansfield and Phil Sansom ... Read more

05 Apr 2024

50 MINS

50:18

05 Apr 2024


#214

G.O.A.T

Can you put a price on the perfect athlete? In baseball you can, and that’s a $700 million dollar contract. Shoehi Ohtani took to the field in Seoul for the LA Dodgers to prove that the big cheque was worth it. It has Marnie asking – can you predict if one of your kids will become the G.O.A.T – the Greatest of All Time in any sport? She’ll also be investigating the other kind of goat – I'd say ordinary, but these ones are fighting wildfires. We bring you the curious tale of a never-before-seen beach pebble washing up on the shores of a remote island. What are they? And get the lowdown on the most unpleasant sounding ultramarathons after a 40-year-old Scottish woman completes a race SO hard that only 20 people have finished . Plus, gravitational waves, home-grown antivenom, and listening on double speed. Can your brain take it? Presented by Marnie Chesterton, Phillys Mwatee and Camilla Mota. Produced by Harrison Lewis with Tom Bonnett, Jack Lee and Cath Mcghee. ... Read more

28 Mar 2024

50 MINS

50:17

28 Mar 2024


#213

Ancient water, modern solutions

In a week of headlines about water shortages slowing ships in the Panama Canal and drought in India's Silicon Valley, we look at unexpected ways to manage the world’s water. Presenter Marnie Chesterton and panellists Chhavi Sachdev in Mumbai, India, and Meral Jamal in Nunavut, Canada, tell stories of innovative ideas being tried in their parts of the world. Marnie meets water detective Barbara Sherwood Lollar, professor in earth sciences at the University of Toronto, to hear how ancient water can help us plan for the future. Plus, how submersible speakers can help corals, and stories of living underground. Producer: Dan Welsh with Tom Bonnett, Harrison Lewis, Jack Lee, Katie Tompsett and Emily Preston. ... Read more

21 Mar 2024

50 MINS

50:20

21 Mar 2024


#212

Fandom: The next generation

Passionate K-Pop fans send us on a journey into the science of fandom. Panellists Andrada Fiskutean in Bucharest, Romania and Tristan Ahtone in Helsinki, Finland bring us stories of Star Trek’s sci-fi utopias, why allegiances affect our behaviour and how a cunning sea creature chooses which side of itself to reveal. Presenter Marnie Chesterton meets one of her heroes - American theoretical cosmologist and particle physicist Dr Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, who helps Marnie understand the universe with lyrical beauty. ... Read more

14 Mar 2024

50 MINS

50:10

14 Mar 2024


#211

Unexpected Oscars

As award season reaches its climax in the US, Unexpected Elements holds its own glitzy ceremony. Which bit of science will win Best Picture? Who will take home the Best Supporting Actor? And will Prof Elaine Chew play us out with her Best Original Music? The nominations include a particularly noisy tiny fish, a sweating mannequin, and a composition based on a misbehaving heartbeat. All this plus your correspondence and a discussion of how far science infuses the real Academy Awards. Presented by Marnie Chesterton with Godfred Boafo and Camilla Moto. Featuring pianist Elaine Chew, Professor of Engineering at Kings College London. Produced by Alex Mansfield, with Tom Bonnet, Harrison Lewis, Dan Welsh and Katie Tomsett. ... Read more

07 Mar 2024

50 MINS

50:20

07 Mar 2024


#210

Leaping in Sync

As the leap year helps to keep us in sync with the sun, we turn our attention to the natural world. There is no simple solution to stop forces like climate change that are sending nature out of sync. We’re seeing flowers such as Japan’s famous cherry blossom blooming early because of warmer weather. Some pollinators are emerging only to find the plants they rely on have been and gone. But, within the natural world, there also incredible stories of animal synchrony that offer hope and that we could learn from. We meet the Cape Ground Squirrels who appear to be adapting to sweltering summers, fireflies who offer a model for understanding the relationships between objects and hear about a ‘perfect’ solar system in which all planets are in sync. Plus, the underwater mountain range discovered in Chile, a listener asks a question about keeping time and we hear what you’ve been getting in touch about over the past week. ... Read more

29 Feb 2024

50 MINS

50:14

29 Feb 2024


#209

Going the distance

A scientific tribute to to the successes and potential of Kelvin Kiptum, the best marathon runner to ever take to the roads. Marnie and the team take time to reflect on the tragic loss after Kelvin's death and looks at the science behind his record breaking performances. Why do East African long distance runners continue to dominate the world stage? Can one group of indigenous people in the state of Chihuahua in Mexico, really run 100km without getting tired? And what makes you fall off the back of a treadmill when you just can't keep going? Is the limiting factor in endurance sports found in the body or the mind? We also hear how one small insect is having a mighty impact on African ecosystems, and Marnie ponders the future of AI. What happens when we are no longer able to trust our eyes and ears in a world of deepfakes. Presenter: Marnie Chesterton, with Philistian Mwatee and Tristan Ahtone Producer: Harrison Lewis, with Dan Welsh, Tom Bonnett, Katie Tomsett and Jack Lee ... Read more

22 Feb 2024

50 MINS

50:07

22 Feb 2024


#208

Not so random acts of kindness

Ahead of international Random Acts of Kindness Day, Marnie Chesterton and an invited panel look at some of the science behind nature’s better nature. Are mother spiders in Africa behind the ultimate act of kindness? How are lightning and lava lamps involved in the quest for a truly random number? And the engineer trying to bring more compassion to the machines we use every day. We also hear about the technology helping archaeologists discover lost worlds in South America, the maths that might benefit your love life, and Marnie receives her very own random act of kindness - a surprise trip to a lab to meet some of the most extraordinary creatures on the planet. Presenter: Marnie Chesterton, with Andrada Fiscutean and Camilla Mota Producer: Dan Welsh, with Tom Bonnett, Katie Tomsett and Alex Mansfield ... Read more

15 Feb 2024

50 MINS

50:22

15 Feb 2024


#207

Deep in thought

Brain implants have been sparking conversation about the future of humanity after Elon Musk's company Neuralink announced it has embedded a microchip in a human skull. It has fired up people's imaginations and led some to wonder whether these devices that connect to our brain could be a stepping stone towards the ideas more often found in sci-fi, and maybe even create a tool to read people's thoughts. Marnie Chesterton and the panel discuss whether our privacy is at risk or whether we are already an open book. They try to understand the concept of backing up our brains, and they meet Dr Michael Winding from the Francis Crick Institute in the UK to hear about a pioneering study to map the pathways of a brain, and you might be surprised how small that brain was. Plus, Katie Tomsett looks at how tattoos could be used to indicate the health of our bodies. In Under the Radar we learn how batteries could one day charge through sound, we hear the story of an alleged spy pigeon caught in India, and we highlight the wonderful tale of a beluga whale. Presenter: Marnie Chesterton, with Chhavi Sachdev and Kai Kupferschmidt Producer: Tom Bonnett, with Alex Mansfield, Dan Welsh, Katie Tomsett and Jack Lee ... Read more

08 Feb 2024

50 MINS

50:22

08 Feb 2024


#206

How plankton made mountains

This week, the world’s largest cruise ship set sail from Miami. Whilst a cruise holiday may be appealing to some, there is also a long history of disease spreading around the world via ships. Marnie and the panel take a look at the reasons why and the resulting impact on public health policies. It’s not just humans and microbes that are hitching a ride aboard sea vessels. Animals such as mussels can cling on to ship hulls, exposing previously pristine environments to potentially invasive species. We hear how scientists are tackling this problem with novel polymer lubricants. And we’re not done yet with marine creatures creating big issues. Professor John Parnell tells us the huge impact microscopic phytoplankton has had on Earth’s geology, and how the stuff in your pencils could actually be the bodies of long dead plankton... Plus, we explore the latest developments in rhino IVF, say ‘saluton’ to our Esperanto listeners and answer a question about going grey. And as Alabama uses nitrogen to execute a prisoner, we look at the science behind death penalty drugs. Presenter: Marnie Chesterton, with Yangyang Cheng and Philistiah Mwatee Producer: Sophie Ormiston, with Margaret Sessa Hawkins, Alex Mansfield, Dan Welsh, Harrison Lewis, Katie Tomsett and Jack Lee Production Co-ordinator: Jonathan Harris ... Read more

01 Feb 2024

50 MINS

50:33

01 Feb 2024


#205

Populations of people, frogs and microbes

This week on the show that brings you the science behind the news, we’re looking at news that China’s population has fallen for the second year running. Worrying news for China’s economy, but would a declining population be a good thing for the planet? The Unexpected Elements team on three continents meet the musical frogs who are having to climb a mountain to keep their populations stable, and dig deep to explore the earth’s declining microbiome and the hope scientists have for the future. As the Africa Cup of Nations continues, we’ll be wondering how you might date a footballer. Not in a romantic sense… we hear about some suspiciously mature youth players and how science can help when the age on a passport isn’t reliable. Marnie will be wondering why Japanese men are shouting their love from a hilltop, and unpicking the recipe for a truly satisfying hug. All that plus a postbag bursting with multilingual puns, and the reason Portuguese speakers have trouble with English doors. Presented by Marnie Chesterton Produced by Ben Motley, with Alex Mansfield, Dan Welsh, Katy Tomsett and Jack Lee ... Read more

25 Jan 2024

50 MINS

50:13

25 Jan 2024


#204

Rulers and the rules of ageing

As France's youthful new Prime Minister gets his feet under the desk, we examine how stress and strains can change the way we look. We also ask what the late nights and lack of sleep that go hand in hand with leadership can mean for the health of the human body and we hear how measuring intelligence in young people isn't as straightforward as it might seem. ... Read more

18 Jan 2024

50 MINS

50:17

18 Jan 2024


#203

Super corals and science diplomacy

Could geopolitical tensions around the Red Sea affect research into the region’s heat-resistant super corals? Also on the program, what an ocean that used to lie under the Himalayas can tell us about evolution, the fruit chat continues with the latest chapter in the bananadine saga, and how looking to the past could help create the shipping of the future. ... Read more

11 Jan 2024

50 MINS

50:16

11 Jan 2024


#202

Timing is everything

As the new year arrives for much of the world, Marnie and pals look at a few time-related oddities. From the abolition of the leap second, to how some people feel they can actually see time stretching before them, to a festival of lunar-loving worms. On the anniversary of the invention of the word “robot”, we discuss EU AI legislation and its parallels with science fiction of a century ago, regal handedness, Arctic golf courses and the time-capsule of all humanity, stuck to the side of the Voyager Probes. Presented by Marnie Chesterton with Meral Jamal, Andrada Fiscutean, plus Prof Anje Schutze of Texas A&M University Produced by Tom Bonnett, with Alex Mansfield and Dan Welsh ... Read more

04 Jan 2024

50 MINS

50:24

04 Jan 2024


#201

The Best of Unexpected Elements

Usually Unexpected Elements looks at the science behind the news, but this week Marnie Chesterton and Caroline Steel are looking back at some of the best bits from our first few months. We’ve got the best from our team of panellists across the globe, including what’s going on in your brain when you speak more than one language, the horrific mating ritual of the bedbug and the science behind our panellist Camilla’s terrible haircut decision. We look back at some of the brilliant scientists we’ve spoken to, with subjects as diverse as whale song, how the entire universe was once the size of a marble, why an archaeologist hasn’t run off with all the gold he’s found and how the jewel wasp turn a cockroach into a zombie. We have ‘Under the Radar’ stories about power outages in South Africa, human ancestors from China, bringing Rhinos back to life in Kenya and how to keep everyone safe from Polar Bears in a place where there’s no phone signal. We reflect on our attempts to find the Coolest Science in the World, and whether it’s possible to pit a hurricane machine against an alternative to antibiotics. And it wouldn’t be a ‘best of’ show without a digest of all the fruit chat from throughout the year. All that plus eating glue for science, our best (or worst?) puns and some singing cows. Presented by Marnie Chesterton & Caroline Steel Produced by Ben Motley, with Tom Bonnett ... Read more

28 Dec 2023

49 MINS

49:56

28 Dec 2023