In this online age, the internet is a global megaphone, billions of messages amplified and shared, even when they're false. Fake science spreads faster than the truth ever could, unhindered by national boundaries. Mainstream scientists are struggling to respond.
The science journalist and writer, Angela Saini, is fascinated by how bad ideas spread and in this programme she investigates the very real impact of online scientific misinformation. From the dangerous anti-vaccination campaigns to those who deny the reality of climate change, she assesses the scale and extent of the threat we face.
And she discovers the sinister world of deliberate disinformation where an army of bots and trolls work to sow dissent and confusion in the online space.
Producer: Fiona Hill
The silence of the genes
In summer of 2019 NICE approved the use of a completely new class of drugs: the gene silencers. These compounds are transforming the lives of families who have rare debilitating – and sometimes fatal - diseases such as amyloidosis and porphyria. James Gallagher, BBC Health and Science Correspondent, reveals the ups and downs in the story of how a Nobel prize winning discovery of RNA interference has become a useful drug in less than a quarter of a century.
Professor Craig Mello, one of the winners of the Nobel Prize in 2006 for revealing the mechanism of RNA interference, and Professor Mark Kay of Stanford University, look back at the discovery.
Sue Burrell, who has acute intermittent porphyria, explains how a gene silencing drug has reversed her symptoms of extreme pain. Dr Carlos Heras-Palou, an orthopaedic surgeon at Royal Derby Hospital, who has hereditary transthyretin-mediated amyloidosis has had his career saved by taking another gene silencing drug, patisaran. It has restored the feeling in his hands he had lost and means that he can continue to carry out operations. Professor Philip Hawkins, of the National Amyloidosis Centre at the Royal Free Hospital, tells James about how his team showed that this drug reverses some of the symptoms caused by the disease.
As well as treating these rare conditions James discovers that this approach is being tried in untreatable neurodegenerative conditions. He talks to Professor Sarah Tabrizi of UCL about her research into stopping Huntington's disease, which is currently inevitably fatal.
Akshay Vaishnaw of the biotech company Alnylam talks to James about the ups and downs of developing effective RNAi drugs.
And Professor John Kastelein of Amsterdam University discusses the findings of a study into finding out if gene silencing could help prevent one of the biggest global killers; bad cholesterol that causes heart attacks and stroke.
Picture: DNA molecules, structure of the genetic code, 3d rendering,conceptual image, Credit: Andy/GettyImages
Alexis Carrel and the immortal chicken heart
Philip Ball tells the story of Alexis Carrel, the French surgeon who worked to preserve life outside the body and create an immortal chicken heart in a dish. His quest was to renew ageing flesh, repair and rebuild our bodies and keep them healthy far beyond the usual human lifespan. In the early twentieth century his science was pioneering but his mission to achieve eternal life was underpinned by a dark and terrifying agenda. Carrel was a racist who advocated eugenics to preserve the superior civilisation of the West.
Philip Ball discusses the history and cultural impact of the tissue culture techniques developed by Carrel with social historian Professor Hannah Landecker of the University of California at Los Angeles. And he finds out about the legacy of Carrel's research from Dr Madeline Lancaster of Cambridge University, one of the pioneers of the growth of brain organoids from stem cells; small clusters of neurons and other cells, rather like mini organs no bigger than a dried pea.
Picture: Raw chicken heart, Credit: Arina_Bogachyova/Getty Images
Ramon Llull: Medieval prophet of computer science
Philip Ball tells the story of Ramon Llull, the medieval prophet of computer science. During the time of the Crusades Llull argued that truth could be automated and used logic over force to prove the existence of the Christian God. It was a dangerous idea that got him thrown into prison and threatened with execution but today he is hailed, not as a prophet of the Christian faith, but of computer science.
Philip Ball talks to historian Pamela Beattie of the University of Louisville in Kentucky about Ramon Llull's life and times in 13th century Catalonia, and to mathematician and Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, Marcus du Sautoy, about the legacy of Llull's ideas in combinatorics, a branch of mathematics that explores how we can arrange a set of objects.
Note: Many thanks to Carter Marsh & Co for the recording of mechanical sounds.
Picture: Ramon Llull, Credit: SebastianHamm/Getty Images
Ignaz Semmelweiss: The hand washer
Lindsey Fitzharris tells the story of Ignaz Semmelweiss, the hand washer. In a world that had no understanding of germs, he tried to apply science to halt the spread of infection. Ignaz Semmelweis observed that many young medical students at his hospital in Vienna went directly from an autopsy, still covered in contaminated dead flesh, to attend pregnant women. Could this be the reason for such high maternal mortality rates from conditions like puerperal fever? Believing that the disease was caused by “infective material” from a dead body, Semmelweiss set up a basin filled with chlorinated lime solution in his hospital and began saving women’s lives with three simple words: ‘wash your hands’. He was demonised by his colleagues for his efforts, but today, he is known as the “Saviour of Mothers.”
Lindsey Fitzharris discusses some of the common myths surrounding the story of Semmelweiss with Dr Barron H. Lerner of New York University Langone School of Medicine. And she talks to Professor Val Curtis, Director of the Environmental Health Group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has studied the amount of hand washing by medical staff in hospitals today.
Picture: Victorian boy washing his hands in a stream, Credit: whitemay