BBC News Online portfolio

My BBC news online pieces (I’ll try and keep this current!)

    • 4 October 2013
      • Science & Environment / 4 October 2013A new shape-changing metal crystal is reported in the journal Nature , by scientists at University of Minnesota. It is the prototype of a new…

    • 13 September 2013
      • Science & Environment / 13 September 2013Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a proposed route to mitigate fossil-fuel greenhouse gases’ impact on Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and climate.
      • Science & Environment / 13 September 2013One hundred images form a stunning new photographic exhibition that demonstrates the role played by imaging across many areas of science. The…
    • 12 September 2013
      • Science & Environment / 12 September 2013Over the last 14 months there has been a five-fold increase in reported landslides in the UK, scientists say. The British Geological Survey (BGS)
    • 11 September 2013
    • 10 September 2013
      • Science & Environment / 10 September 2013Rare dinosaur remains could be forever lost to the scientific community when they go under the hammer in November. The remarkably preserved fossils…
    • 6 September 2013
    • 29 August 2013
      • Science & Environment / 29 August 2013Life may have started on Mars before arriving on Earth, a major scientific conference has heard. New research supports an idea that the Red Planet…
    • 28 August 2013
      • Science & Environment / 28 August 2013A diverse range of life forms exists deep below Earth’s surface, scientists have concluded, but they survive at an incredibly slow pace. Long-lived…
    • 9 August 2013
      • Science & Environment / 9 August 2013Colonies of bacteria balance growth against risk, just like financial investors, ecologists have found. Using lab-based synthetic biology, experiments…
    • 8 August 2013
    • 6 August 2013
      • Science & Environment / 6 August 2013Arrays of tiny copper spikes can clean oil from water, mimicking the way cacti pull water out of desert air. Chinese researchers had noticed that…
    • 2 August 2013
    • 1 August 2013
    • 31 July 2013
    • 29 July 2013
    • 19 July 2013
    • 18 July 2013
      • Science & Environment / 18 July 2013New evidence has been uncovered of a rare cosmic event that is proposed as a source of heavy elements such as gold. Observations from the Hubble…
      • Science & Environment / 18 July 2013Teeth from sauropod dinosaurs – the largest land animals that ever lived – reveal the feeding habits of these giants. Researchers report that…
    • 16 July 2013
      • Science & Environment / 16 July 2013New materials technology has boosted the power conversion efficiency of cheap next-generation solar cells. Called dye-sensitised solar cells (DSSCs),…
    • 15 July 2013
    • 10 July 2013
      • Science & Environment / 10 July 2013Earthworm faeces can be used to measure past temperatures, providing a window into the ancient climate. A study shows that the chemistry of small…
    • 9 July 2013
      • Science & Environment / 9 July 2013Scientists have proposed a radical new model for the make-up of the Earth’s core. The study may explain a longstanding puzzle about the most inaccessible…
    • 8 July 2013
      • Science & Environment / 8 July 2013Rust could help boost the efficiency of hydrogen production from sunlight – a potentially green source of energy. Tiny (nano-sized) particles…
    • 28 June 2013
      • Science & Environment / 28 June 2013The shock wave from an asteroid that burned up over Russia in February was so powerful that it travelled twice around the globe, scientists say.

Life from Mars?

Mars_atmosphereI am at Goldschmidt2013. A meeting of 4000 or so geochemists.

This Goldschmidt has been kinda crazy for me. It has been great, but almost too much. The multiple parallel sessions, the excellent science presented across the board, the opportunities to discover new things as well as discuss the latest results in the familiar. At some points I have felt delocalised across the isolated lecture rooms, which stand pod-like in a uniform landscape of a vast hall which always seems to manage to disorient me and leave me heading in the wrong direction.

As well as the science, I have been trying to report for the BBC. A sort of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde experience? There have been a couple of items out so far, one on the deep biosphere and one on whether life originated first on Mars. Also a radio piece on the biosphere story that I have edited a bit and will appear on Sunday on BBC world service radio. I’m trying to get another post up on the news site for tomorrow, but in the meantime I am blogging a bit! It’s tricky to fit it all in.

The Mars story came from Steve Benner’s talk about the role of borates and oxidised molybdates in templating and catalysing sugars to make ribose, on the way to making RNA. I managed to talk with Steve the day before his presentation, by phone, to get some quotations for the news piece. The piece went live on news online in the early hours of the morning and quickly rose to the coveted “most read” position on the main page.


Steve Benner in conversation with John Humphreys

Steve was all set to talk at 9am, but at 8:30 I got a call from the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme in London, saying that they wanted to interview him live in an hour’s time.

The Goldschmidt folk did a great job of setting up a skype connection at short notice, and I sat back to listen to Steve Benner’s talk. There were some fantastic sound bites, that I, as a mineralogist, really enjoyed. Explaining how the catalytic effects of minerals were essential in his picture, and minerals that would, he suggests, be more likely to have been present on Mars than Earth in the early Solar System, Benner put up a slide with the words “there is hope through mineralogy“. Love it!

As soon as he was finished we set off to find Goldschmidt guru Liane Benning and check that the computer was functioning. Then waited for the sports news, headlines, weather forecast, and an item about the governor of the Bank of England before John Humphrys turned his attention to the Mars question.

After that, back to the meeting to hear the latest on chondrite formation, mineral evolution, and palaeoceanographic proxies. It’s been another diverse day!

And finally, a song to sum up the experience, Bowie of course! Life on Mars?

The Scream, Jimmy Neutron, Star Wars and Dune

Most Popular Redoubt

Reporting at the news desk this week seems to have taken a cinematographic theme. Going back (to the future?) a bit, let me start at the very beginning … Volcanic Screams seemed to go down well. Amazingly, seismic noise observed just before the onset of volcanic eruptions in Alaska was more interesting to the general public that weight loss, J K Rowling, or Edward Snowden.

Dye sensitised solar cells, dinosaur teeth, neutron star collisions, iron fertilisation into the oceans and the influence of barchan dunes on Star Wars sets made up the rest of my week.

Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 22.11.31Of these, Star Wars vs. Dune captured attention, which is, I guess, understandable. But there is a bit of science in there too, with links to dune migration not only on Earth but also on Mars and Titan. It went out on Friday evening, and before long had been picked up by other news outlets, so that was encouraging. It managed to sit at number one for quite some while too, beating JAY Z and even the weather.

Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 21.28.35

I’m giving this a bit of a rest now, and taking off to a synchrotron to do some experiments and maybe make the science that makes the news … who knows?! The next post will likely be written from in ecstasy or despair, depending how that experiment progresses! See you soon …

Taking stock

Things roll on at the Science Hub since my last post. Officially, I have reached the end of my time with BBC Science Radio and have now joined the website folk at Science Online. In fact I am just a few desks further down the same office and can still pester the radio guys and gals on my way to and from the tea/coffee area.

News online seems a little more urgent and pressing, delivery of content daily rather than centred around one weekly show. Keeping up with news embargoes and abreast of what others are doing.

My first official story is one that I really think is a piece of brilliant science … observations of seismicity associated with volcanic eruptions at Redoubt, a magnificent volcano in Alaska. But I spent the first part of the morning reading the latest news from Mars’ Curiosity Rover to help assess how newsworthy it really is. Next I need to learn the mechanics of how to put a web page together for news online. Then I should be rather more independent come tomorrow. We’ll see what news that brings.

Anyway, I thought it was about time I recorded my output so far, since I am likely to lose track soon.


Volcanic ‘scream’ precedes eruption

Worm poo’s window into past climate

New idea tackles Earth core puzzle

Rust promises hydrogen power boost

Russian meteor shockwave circled globe twice


Science in Action (World Service) 12/07/2103 – Knitting perovskite molecules

The Science Hour (World Service) 07/07/2013 – Dark Matter

Science in Action (World Service) 05/07/2103 – Plank: Looking back to the dawn of time

The Science Hour (World Service) 30/06/2013 – Russian meteors make waves

Researcher for Material World (Radio 4) 27/06/2103 – Uncertainty in scientific research

Also, separately, on:


Mont Blanc’s glacier protects, rather than erodes -15/07/2013

Ageing rover finds evidence for an early ocean on Mars – 11/06/2013

Mystery solved: meteorite caused Tunguska devastation – 27/06/2013


and to my “famous five” I can add a few more BBC celebs spotted around the place .. Alan Yentob, Will Gompertz, and Jonathan Dimbelby.

Perovskite pleasures

I travelled down to the University of Surrey on Monday to check out the Perovskite Project at the Department of Chemistry. Having checked my Marantz recorder and all related equipment, and convinced myself that I knew how to use it , I turned up to interview Dr Julia Percival, project leader for this lovely piece of citizen science.


Now, I am biased, I love perovskites. Not only are they the commonest silicates in the planet, forming most of Earth’s deeper reaches, before you get to the metal core, they are also deeply deeply useful. Mobile phones, computer chips, audio recorders, gas lighters, battery materials, fuel cell components, magnetometers, and, latest, dye-sensitised solar cells, all rely on perovskite materials.


Last year was the International Year of Chemistry. Next year is the International Year of Crystallography. This year is the centenary of the Braggs’ first crystallographic work. So, what better way to celebrate than to knit a perovskite crystal?!!!

Julia has been receiving knitted perovskite polyhedra and atoms from across the globe. We had a great chat about all things perovskite, about whether it is better to knit them or to synthesise them in a furnace, how to cast on, and the reasons scientists build models. It linked in well to a discussion I had at the Science Museum last week when discussing the exhibit there, also celebrating a century of crystallography.

The interview went on for around 40 minutes, on Monday afternoon. I spent most of Tuesday editing that down to 5 minutes or so, a painful process. And the result should be available for all to hear tomorrow evening on this week’s “Science in Action”, on the BBC world service radio, where all the best programmes are found!

Radio Days

Been fitting in a bit of science between the science media shows … went up to Edinburgh last night on the Caledonian Sleeper. I would thoroughly recommend Scotrail’s night train … having been across south west France recently on SNCF‘s version, which is ok as far as it goes, Scotrail win hands down. I woke and ate breakfast just beyond Carstairs, as the rolling hills of South Lanarkshire passed by. They looked absolutely beautiful in the early morning sun. And Edinburgh Waverley Station’s ironwork shone bright.


A very interesting meeting at the Centre for Science at Extreme Conditions occupied my morning, discussing the possibilities for neutron scattering studies of matter at high pressures and temperatures into the next decade or more, especially resulting from the planned European Spallation Source in Sweden. And then south once more.

But I am getting ahead of myself. What of the end of last week at the beeb? I spent a Thursday interviewing folk at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition and at the Science Museum. Unfortunately the Marantz Recorder I was using conspired against me, and technical failures (on my part) led to a worthless day of work with little useful material obtained.


In the meantime I have been building a couple of stories that may appear in the coming week, with plenty of telephone interviews and data gathering. This will involve my first “outside broadcast” on Monday, when I attempt to go out and get some radio beyond the immediate vicinity of New Broadcasting House.

Meanwhile, back at HQ, the Dark Matter and Dark Energy piece will appear once more, this time in World Service’s “The Science Hour” tomorrow …

Radio Days

Today I have been mainly …

… learning about the 95% of the Universe that we simply do not know much/anything about. Dark Matter and Dark Energy are the Dark Secrets of the place we inhabit. And having learned what I could, I tried to distill it and turn yesterday’s hour or so of interviews at the Royal Society into a coherent item for the Science In Action show … to appear on Thursday evening, this week.


Meteorite fallout and other matters

Chelyabinsk_NewsLast week’s meteorite story seems to have spread far and wide. The two articles it was based on were in respected journals, but ones that are probably not in line of sight of the average news desk. So having helped put it out there, others seem to have liked what they saw and re-used it across the globe.

What’s more, the story ran on World Service’s “Science Hour” over the weekend … I ended up rambling on about meteorites for longer than the average listener can manage, I guess!

This-morning I visited the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. Julian Siddle and I recorded interviews with three of the exhibitor teams. My homework for this-evening is to create a five-minute story from 40 minutes or so of recorded interviews at Carlton House Terrace. If all goes well it should appear later in the week on Science in Action, a BBC World Service programme. The photos show Julian attempting to record the sound of a demonstration model of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. It will make audio sense, trust me!

IMG_1203 IMG_1202

Famous Five

The end of the week. This-morning I woke earlier and took a look at news online, to discover that a piece I had written had been transformed into a news item. The work of an expert editor in the shape of Paul Rincon!


Meanwhile, I have kept a tab of beeb celebs spotted through the week, my famous five: Brian Cox, Joan Bakewell, Evan Davis, Nicholas Witchell and Kate Adie. Unsurprising really, but still noticeable.

… the famous five.

4 … Radio … live …. it’s a Material World

Thursday is the zenith of the week for the small group I have had the joy of working amongst these last few days. 16:30 on Thursday, to be precise, with the live broadcast of “Material World”. I was able to be a small part of the last ever episode of this show, and contributed notes and queries on the topic of Scientific Uncertainty.


Yesterday I managed to recruit Profs Angela McLean (Oxford, Zoology) and Ian Stewart (Warwick, Maths) to the cause, to discuss the nature of certainty or otherwise in scientific discoveries, predictions, and methods. The results are available for all to hear here:  My bit lies between horse DNA and cutlery!ImageHaving written out a handful of potential questions for the presenter Gareth Mitchell, to put to the guests, together with expected possible responses from them, my work was incorporated into a draft script, as one third of the half hour content. I wrote some words for the website, found an appropriate photo and got permissions, and sat back. Angela arrived at NBH in good time, and Alex Mansfield took us up to the studio, guiding the process expertly as ever. Ania Lichtarowicz oversaw the entire process with calm professionalism, providing reassurance and encouragement in good measure.


Watching the show go out live was nail biting, What might go wrong? Who might dry up? Which major statesman might die in the next 30 minutes and upset the entire schedule? In the end Gareth was a master, guiding the discussion smoothly and seamlessly, a joy to watch and hear. Relief, and sadness, at the final episode of a great piece of radio. The only live science show on BBC Radio. I am glad I was there, just in time, to take part and to see it.Image


living in a material world