Neuroscientist Adrian Owen has spent much of his career exploring what he calls ‘the grey zone’, a realm of consciousness inhabited by people with severe brain injuries, who are aware yet unable to respond to those around them. It's this inability to respond which has led doctors to conclude that they are unaware.
In the late 1990's, Adrian started to question the assumption that they lacked awareness and a chance discovery set him on a novel path of enquiry - could some of these patients be conscious or aware even though they don’t appear to be?
His research has revealed that some are, and he’s pioneered techniques to help them to communicate with the outside world.
This emerging field of science has implications, not only for patients but, for philosophy and the law.
A British scientist, Adrian now runs a research programme at the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University in Canada, dedicated to reaching people in this ‘grey zone’.
Picture: Adrian Owen, BBC Copyright
The Evidence: Coronavirus Special
A panel of international experts take a global look at the science of Covid-19. We hear about vaccines, treatments, strategies to contain the virus and the role of big data.
Professor Martha Clokie
Professor Martha Clokie tells Jim Al-Khalili how she found viruses that destroy antibiotic-resistant bugs by looking in stool samples, her son's nappies and estuary mud.
Could viruses improve our health where antibiotics have failed? As a child, Martha Clokie spent a lot of time collecting seaweed on Scottish beaches. She loves plants and studied botany for many years. But mid-career, she learnt about all the viruses that exist in nature. We tend to focus on the viruses that make us ill but there are trillions of viruses on earth and in the ocean and most of them eat bacteria. When a virus destroys a bacteria that attacks our bodies, then it could be just what the doctor ordered. Our enemy’s enemy is our friend.
Martha became interested in how these viruses - or bacteriophages as they’re known - might be used to treat disease. Before long, Martha had moved from studying African violets in Uganda to looking at stool samples under the microscope and asking fellow parents to donate their babies’ dirty nappies to her research. She spent many years looking for phages that attack the superbug C. difficile, which is responsible for a particularly nasty form of diarrhoea and results in tens of thousands of deaths every year. And she has shown, in animal models at least, that these phages could succeed where antibiotics have failed.
Jim Al-Khalili finds out why Demis Hassabis wants to create artificial intelligence and use it to help humanity.
Thinking about how to win at chess when he was a boy got Demis thinking about the process of thinking itself. Being able to program his first computer (a Sinclair Spectrum) felt miraculous. In computer chess, his two passions were combined. And a lifelong ambition to create artificial intelligence was born.
Demis studied computer science at Cambridge and then worked in the computer games industry for many years. Games, he says, are the ideal testing ground for AI. Then, thinking memory and imagination were aspects of the human mind that would be a necessary part of any artificially intelligent system, he studied neuroscience for a PhD.
He set up DeepMind in 2010 and pioneered a new approach to creating artificial intelligence, based on deep learning and built-in rewards for making good decisions. Four years later, DeepMind was sold to Google for £400 million. The company’s landmark creation, Alpha Go stunned the world when it defeated the world Go champion in South Korea in 2016. Their AI system, AlphaZero taught itself to play chess from scratch. After playing against itself for just four hours, it was the best chess computer in the world. (Humans had been defeated long ago).
Many fear both the supreme intelligence and the stupidity of AI. Demis imagines a future in which computers and humans put their brains together to try and understand the world. His algorithms have inspired humans to raise their game, when playing Go and chess. Now, he hopes that AI might do the same for scientific research. Perhaps the next Nobel Prize will be shared between a human and AI?
Isaac Newton and the story of the apple
The story of how Newton came up with his gravitational theory is one of the most familiar in the history of science. He was sitting in the orchard at Woolsthorpe, thinking deep thoughts, when an apple fell from a tree. And all at once, Newton realised that the force of gravity pulling the apple down to the ground must be the same as the force that holds the moon in orbit around the earth. But was that really how he came up with his great idea? These days, historians of science don’t fall for cosy eureka stories like this. Rather they say that new understanding comes slowly, through hard graft, false trails, and failed ideas.
Philip Ball tells the story of the life and ideas of Isaac Newton, who was born on Christmas Day in 1642. Philip discusses with historian of science Anna Marie Roos of the University of Lincoln, just 30 miles north of Woolsthorpe, how Newton developed his theory of gravity . And he talks to Tom McLeish of the University of York, the author of a book about creativity in science and art, about his observation that many scientists today do think they have had eureka moments.
(Image: Isaac Newton under his apple-tree. Credit: API/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images)