The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry

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Is there a point in space where the Sun could heat a burrito perfectly? asks Will. The doctors tackle this and a plethora of other conundrums from the Curious Cases inbox. Featuring expert answers from astrophysicist Samaya Nissanke, cosmologist Andrew Pontzen, and cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott. Presenters: Hannah Fry & Adam Rutherford Producer: Jen Whyntie
‘Today I learnt that tigons and ligers are what you get when lions and tigers interbreed?!’ surprised listener Jamz G tells the doctors. ‘What determines whether species can interbreed?’ Geneticist Aoife McLysaght studies molecular evolution. She explains the modern definition of a species, built on ideas from Aristotle, Linnaeus and Darwin: a species is a group of organisms capable of interbreeding to produce fertile offspring. Hybrids – such as ligons and tigers – are usually infertile, because their common ancestors long ago diverged into the lions and tigers we know today. However, this definition isn’t absolute, and there are many ways a new species can be formed. Hybrids also offer rich study subjects for scientists. Mathematical biologist Kit Yates discusses why he’s been reading research papers about hebras and zorses (horse x zebra) as their patterns offer insights into how cells spread and develop into organisms, building on a prediction made by codebreaking mathematician Alan Turing. And it turns out that these hybrids are even more intriguing. As speciation and evolution expert Joana Meier explains, hybrids are not always infertile. Hybridisation can lead to successful new species arising, such as in Lake Victoria’s cichlid fish, who it seems have been having a wild evolutionary party for the last 15,000 years. And the picture gets even murkier when we discover that modern genetics reveals our human ancestors successfully mated with Neanderthals. Presenters: Hannah Fry & Adam Rutherford Producer: Jen Whyntie
Everyone knows about the Big Bang being the beginning of the universe and time - but when and how is it going to end? ask brothers Raffie and Xe from Rome. For this series, with lockdown learning in mind, Drs Rutherford and Fry are investigating scientific mysteries for students of all ages. The doctors sift science from philosophy to find out. Cosmologist Jo Dunkley studies the origins and evolution of the universe. She explains how astrophysical ideas and techniques have evolved to tell us what we now know about our galaxy and far beyond, from the elegant parallax technique to standard candles. This particular distance measure, which uses stars of a known brightness to work out how far away other objects in the universe are, was discovered by American astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt in 1912, who worked at the Harvard University as one of several “computers” – women who processed and calculated data and made significant contributions to astronomy. Curious Cases’ universal guru Andrew Pontzen puts this into context. Because the universe is so enormous, it turns out that these measurements are just the first steps on the cosmic distance ladder – a suite of tools that astrophysicists use to determine distances to celestial objects. Scientists know that objects are moving away from us because the wavelengths of light from them get stretched and appear redder in our telescopes – the so-called red shift effect. But having a handle on the distances to and between those objects allows cosmologists to monitor what’s happening to them over time. And it turns out that not only are they getting further apart, indicating that the universe is expanding, but that this process is accelerating. So what might happen in the end? Expansion and then collapse – a big crunch? Expansion into the void – a big freeze, or a big rip? Or what if there is more than one universe – might a new one bubble up with totally different laws of physics that would cause our own to cease existing? It turns out that when dealing with predictions for something involving infinite space and time, the possibilities are largely limited by human imagination alone. Ideas are where science starts, but experiments are required to build evidence confirming or rejecting them as fact. The doctors discuss how gravitational wave detectors and quantum computers might one day provide this. Presenters: Hannah Fry & Adam Rutherford Producer: Jen Whyntie
"What’s the point of wasps?" asks listener Andrew, who is fed up with being pestered. For this series, with lockdown learning in mind, Drs Rutherford and Fry are investigating scientific mysteries for students of all ages. Do wasps do anything to justify their presence as a picnic menace? Ecologist Serian Sumner researches social wasp behaviour and champions their existence. Not only do yellow jacket wasps perform important ecological services as generalist pest controllers of aphids, caterpillars and flies in the UK, they have complex societies and may even perform pollination services, making them more like their better-loved bee cousins than many might think. However, much remains unknown about wasps’ contribution to our ecosystem. Serian works with entomologist Adam Hart, and together they run The Big Wasp Survey each summer, a citizen science project dedicated to find out more about UK wasp species and their populations. Prof. Hart sets up an experimental picnic with Dr Rutherford to try and attract some native wasps, and discusses why they are so maligned. But in some parts of the world UK wasp species have become a major problem. Just after World War II, having unwittingly chosen some aircraft parts destined for New Zealand as their overwintering home, some wasp queens woke up in the city of Hamilton. With no natural predators or competitors, they quickly established a growing population. Fast forward to today, and by late summer the biomass of wasps becomes greater than all the birds, rodents and stoats in the southern island’s honeydew beech forests. Multiyear nests have been discovered that are over three metres tall and contain millions of wasps. Researcher Bob Brown is digging into wasp nests back in the UK to discover which species keep wasps in check here, and whether they might work as biological control. This causes the doctors to ponder the problems of humans moving species around the planet. Accidental or even well-meaning introductions all too often become invasive. As climate change and urbanisation accelerate, wasps may become more helpful in some ways and more harmful in others. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Jen Whyntie
"Could you make a machine to make it rain in minutes?" asks listener Alexander from Hampshire, aged 12. For this series, with lockdown learning in mind, Drs Rutherford and Fry are investigating scientific mysteries for students of all ages. Rutherford and Fry dive into the clouded story of weather modification. First, we need to decide where and when we might deploy any rain machine. Liz Bentley, Chief Executive of the Royal Meteorological society, takes us through the science, maths and art of predicting the weather. Hannah heads down to the BBC Weather Centre to meet meteorologist Helen Willetts, who takes us through the highs and lows of forecasting. And then for the technology itself. Mark Miodownik, scientist and author of Liquid: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances The Flow Through Our Lives, reveals that a technique called cloud seeding has almost certainly been tried in different places around the world for decades. But, whilst it’s supposed to induce showers and even clear the way for sunny spells, the results aren’t always reliable. And even if we can make it rain, Liz explains why messing with the weather may be at our peril. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Jen Whyntie
"Why do our tummies rumble - and when they do, does it always mean we are hungry?" asks listener James, aged 12. For this series, with lockdown learning in mind, Drs Rutherford and Fry are investigating scientific mysteries for students of all ages. To get to the bottom of this noisy problem, the doctors tune in to our guts. Geneticist Giles Yeo studies food intake and obesity. He explains the wavy workings of our digestive system, and how those audible rumbles are a sign that digestion is taking place – a phenomenon thought to be onomatopoeically named 'borborygmi' by the ancient Greeks, and explored further in the gruesome 19th century experiments of surgeon William Beaumont. However, tuning in to the gut’s sounds can tell us more than whether we need a snack. Family doctor Margaret McCartney takes us through the process of how and why she and her medical colleagues may use a stethoscope to listen to your abdomen for both particular noises and silence. Microbiologist Barry Marshall has taken medical listening one step further in his Noisy Guts Project. Inspired by microphones used to listen for termites hiding in walls, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist is trialling an acoustic belt, which could be worn to help diagnose and treat Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Jen Whyntie
Rutherford & Fry are back with longer duration episodes brought to you from slightly shouty socially distanced studio and bedroom settings.
"What are wormholes and do they really exist?" asks Manlee-Fidel Spence, aged 12. In this exotic episode, the doctors investigate how wormholes would work. Cosmologist Andrew Pontzen explains why wormholes could allow you to travel through time as well as space. And physicist Jim AlKhalili outlines the infinite problems this could generate. When it comes to wormholes and time travel, many science fiction stories have married solid science and successful storytelling, as Jennifer Oullette describes, but others really have defied the laws of physics. Jim also reveals why some quantum physicists now think that wormholes could be everywhere. But don't expect to jump back to 1955 any time soon. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin
Two cold callers feature in this episode. Jennifer Langston from Ontario in Canada sent this message to "My husband has just taken up cold water swimming and he'll swim in temperatures as low as 6 degrees Celsius. I worry that it's too cold for him, but he claims that 'swimming in cold water is good for you', which drives me bonkers. Can you tell us if there is any scientific proof behind this?” Adam takes a trip to his local lido and asks the locals why they get a kick out of a chilly winter dip. Meanwhile, Hannah calls the Antarctic to talk to meteorologist Richard Warren about the perils of a frozen beard. Our second cold caller, Sarah Dudley, asks why women get cold feet in bed. Thermal physiologist Heather Massey is on hand with the answer. But when it comes to the natural world, other animals are masters of sub-zero living. Frozen Planet producer Kathryn Jeffs, from the BBC's Natural History Unit, explains why polar bears are perfectly designed for the Arctic. And we discover why Paddington Bear is better suited to Peru. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin
“I suppose a cold is called a cold because we catch it in the winter," writes Alison Evans from St Albans. "But why is it that we get more colds in winter than in the summer?” This week's Cold Case is all about the common cold, a set of symptoms caused by hundreds of different strains of cold and flu viruses. Adam uncovers the stinky history of infectious disease with medical historian Claire Jones. Virologists Jonathan Ball and Wendy Barclay describe how spiky viruses lock on to our cells, but why many of the symptoms of a common cold are due to our own body's overreaction. Plus, we delve into the science of sneezing with nose doctor Carl Philpott. Presenters: Adam Rutherford, Hannah Fry Producer: Michelle Martin
"My question is about something I became aware of at a young age," explains Samantha Richter from Cambridgeshire. "I was sitting on the carpet at school, being read a story by the teacher. My hair felt as though it was standing on end as waves of a tingly sensation washed over my head. I subsequently found certain scenes in films had this effect, when actors were talking softly, or someone was having their hair brushed." "Then, a few years ago, I discovered that there is a name for the tingles, it's called ASMR. My question is, what is ASMR, and why do we experience it?" In this episode, we explore the world of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. It's a trend which has risen quickly on YouTube, with devoted subscribers following their favourite 'ASMRtists' whose videos receive millions of plays. Hannah speaks to Dr Nick Davis, who published the very first research paper on the phenomenon in 2015. And Adam is put to the test by Dr Giulia Poerio, to see if he is susceptible to the sensation of ASMR. Are there any proven benefits for devoted fans, or is it just a YouTube fad? We've concocted our very own Curious recordings so you can find out if your brain begins to tingle, You'll find them in our normal podstream, where you can enjoy Adam and Hannah crafting a very ASMRy cocktail for your listening pleasure. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin
Adam Rutherford concocts an Old Fashioned. First listen to our episode on ASMR, then grab some headphones and let Adam mix you a cocktail. Let us know if it gives you the brain tingles, or any other kind of reaction, by emailing
Hannah Fry mixes a mojito. This ASMR recording accompanies the episode of The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry on the science of ASMR. Listen to that first, then grab some headphones and let us know if it gives you the brain tingles by emailing
Two questions about love and heartbreak in this episode for our Valentine's special edition. Jessica Glasco, aged 29, wrote in to ask about the power of love and how it affects our brain. Hannah tracks down Dr Helen Fisher, who conducted some of the first MRI studies on love by putting besotted couples into the brain scanner. Adam talks to broadcaster Claudia Hammond, author of Emotional Rollercoaster, to find out how psychologists have grappled with the messy business of love. And we hear why a small furry vole was thought to hold the answer to the mystery of monogamy. Our second question concerns the pain of heartbreak - why does our heart ache? Can emotional hurt cause physical pain? On call is our very own agony aunt, Irene Tracey, Prof of Pain Research. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin
"How do you make gold?" asks curious listener, Paul Ruddick. Inspired by the promise of riches, Hannah and Adam embark on a mission to discover the origin of gold. It's a tale that takes them from the clandestine codes of Aristotle to the alchemy of Isaac Newton, alongside materials scientist Mark Miodownik. They boldly go into the cosmos with astronomers Lucie Green and Andrew Pontzen, to learn what happens in the most exotic areas of space. By the end one thing is for sure - you'll never look at your gold jewellery in quite the same way again. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin
Rutherford & Fry reveal which of your questions they’ve chosen for Series 15. Plus they select more of their favourite strange-but-true science papers, including how to use mathematics to challenge a parking fine and training tortoises to yawn.
"What would become the dominant species if, or when, humans go extinct?" This cheery question leads Drs Rutherford and Fry to embark on an evolutionary thought experiment. Zoologist Matthew Cobb questions whether humans really are the dominant species. Ecologist Kate Jones explains why some species are more extinction-prone than others. Plus Phil Plait, AKA The Bad Astronomer, busts some myths about why the dinosaurs went extinct. Send your questions for future series, along with any Curio correspondence for the podcast, to: Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin
"Why is it so difficult to predict the weather?" asks Isabella Webber, aged 21 from Vienna. "I am sure there are many intelligent meteorologists and it seems rather straight forward to calculate wind speed, look at the clouds, and data from the past to make accurate predictions, but yet it’s not possible." Adam delves into the history of forecasting with author Andrew Blum, beginning with the mystery of a lost hot air balloon full of Arctic explorers. Hannah visits the BBC Weather Centre to talk to meteorologist and presenter Helen Willetts about how forecasting has changed, and whether people get annoyed at her if she gets the forecast wrong. Plus mathematician Steven Strogatz suggests a chaotic explanation as to why we can't produce the perfect forecast. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin
"How do you make antimatter?' asks Scott Matheson, aged 21 from Utah. The team takes charge of this question with a spin through the history of antimatter. Adam talks to physicist Frank Close, author of 'Antimatter', about its origins in the equations of Dirac to its manufacture in the first particle accelerator, the Bevatron. Cosmologist Andrew Pontzen tells Hannah why physicists today are busy pondering the mystery of the missing antimatter. Anyone who discovers why the Universe is made of matter, rather than antimatter, is in line for the Nobel Prize. Plus, neuroscientist Sophie Scott describes how antimatter has been put to good use down here on Earth to peer into people's brains. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin
Stephen Fry (no relation) asks Adam and Hannah to investigate the following question: "All my life I have been mildly plagued by the fact that I have a quite appalling ability to remember faces. I cut people I should know well dead in the street, or at least fail to recognise them in a way which must often be hurtful. At a party I can talk to someone for ten minutes and then see them again twenty later and have no idea who they are unless I’ve made an effort to fix some accessory or item of their dress in my mind. If I see them the next day in another context I’ll have no idea who they are. It’s distressing for me inasmuch as I hate the idea that people might think I am blanking them, or think little of them, don’t consider them significant and so forth. I’d be very grateful if my sister-in-surname and her eximious partner Adam could investigate prosopagnosia for me and offer any hint add to as to its cause or even possible – I won’t say “cure” as I am sure it’s chronic and untreatable – but at least any interesting ways of relieving it." Hannah and Adam call in the experts, neuroscientists Sophie Scott and Brad Duchaine. Why is it that some people struggle with prosopagnosia, whilst others never forget a face? You can find out more about Face Blindness, who it affects and how to cope with it by visiting Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin
Rutherford and Fry delve into the history of roller coasters in the second instalment of their investigation into why we enjoy being scared. Amelie Xenakis asks: "Why do people enjoy roller coasters? I am a thrill-seeker and I am always terrified before riding a roller coaster but I enjoy the ride itself. (I would like BOTH of you to ride a roller coaster if possible)." Never ones to shy away from a challenge, the pair attempt to channel their inner adrenaline junkies with a trip on one the UK's scariest roller coasters at Thorpe Park. They discover the birth of the roller coaster in the 18th century, when Catherine the Great enjoyed careering down Russian Ice Mountains covered in snow. Adam talks to scary sociologist Margee Kerr, author of 'Scream! The Science of Fear', about how the modern roller coaster evolved. David Poeppel from New York University studies the science of screaming, and we discover what makes screams uniquely terrifying. Plus, psychologist and broadcaster Claudia Hammond describes some early experiments which tested how fear affects our body. Presenters: Adam Rutherford, Hannah Fry Producer: Michelle Martin
It was a dark and stormy night around the time of Halloween. A secret message arrived addressed to Rutherford & Fry from a mysterious woman called Heidi Daugh, who demanded to know: "Why do people like to be scared? For example, going on scary amusement park rides and watching horror movies that make you jump.” What followed was an investigation over two chapters, which would test our intrepid duo to their very limits. In this first instalment, they explore the history of horror, starting with its literary origins in the Gothic fiction classic 'The Castle of Otranto'. Adam challenges Hannah to watch a horror film without hiding behind a cushion. She quizzes horror scholar Mathias Clasen to find out why some people love the feeling of terror, whilst it leaves other cold. Sociologist Margee Kerr and psychologist Claudia Hammond are also on hand to explore why scary movies are so powerful and popular. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin
Rutherford and Fry are back with Series 14. In an extended podcast trailer they discuss their favourite strange-but-true scientific studies, from jetlagged hamsters to flatulent snakes. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin
"Is there is any way of knowing what noises, if any, dinosaurs would have made?" asks Freddie Quinn, aged 8 from Cambridge in New Zealand. From Jurassic Park to Walking with Dinosaurs, the roars of gigantic dinosaurs like T.Rex are designed to evoke fear and terror. But did dinosaurs actually roar? And how do paleontologists investigate what noises these extinct animals may have produced? Hannah and Adam talk to dinosaur experts Steve Brusatte and Julia Clarke to find out. Plus Jurassic World sound designer Al Nelson reveals the strange sounds they used as dinosaur noises in their Hollywood blockbusters. Send your questions for next series in to Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin
In the second installment of our double episode on the Moon we ask what life would be like if we had more than one Moon. From the tides to the seasons, the Moon shapes our world in ways that often go unnoticed. And, as we'll find out, it played a vital role in the creation of life itself. This week we celebrate the many ways the Moon and the Earth are linked. If one Moon is so great, why not have two? We discover why multiple moons could spell disaster for our planet, from giant volcanoes to cataclysmic collisions. Featuring astronomer Brendan Owens from the Royal Observatory Greenwich and physicist Neil Comins, author of 'What if the Earth had two Moons?'. Presenters: Adam Rutherford, Hannah Fry Producer: Michelle Martin
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Podcast Details

Created by
Podcast Status
Potentially Inactive
Feb 11th, 2016
Latest Episode
Jul 14th, 2020
Release Period
Avg. Episode Length
24 minutes

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