Science Cafe, Life Scientific

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In late February 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick announced their discovery of the structure of one of life’s most important molecules: DNA. To celebrate this sixtieth anniversary, Tuesday’s episode of Science Cafe discussed the pair’s findings and the progress made in genomics since then.

From the BBC we expect high standards, and Science Cafe fitted the mould. Presenter Adam Walton ensured the guests, who included Nobel Prize winner Professor Sir Martin Evans, Professor Julian Sampson and Dr Steve Sturdy, stayed within the realms of comprehension so listeners with a range of scientific knowledge could take something from the programme.

Walton excels as a presenter because he thinks like a listener. He asked questions and prompted elaboration where necessary so even a question as simple as: ‘how would you define a gene?’ led to lively conversation.

This year also marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of the human genome but despite promises throughout the 90s that the sequencing would revolutionise modern medicine, that revolution hasn’t come. What has progressed massively is sequencing technology. The Science Cafe guests discussed how the sequencing of the human genome, which once took over a decade, can now be achieved in a matter of weeks using a table-top machine. The advances have produced databases containing millions of gene sequences and are transforming investigation into proteins and the nature of DNA.

Another thing shaping our future is energy policy and, in The Life Scientific last week, presenter Jim Al-Khalili interviewed Dame Sue Ion, an Imperial College alumna. The programme outlined her fascinating career in which she forged ahead in engineering, a male dominated profession, and then rose to the top of the nuclear industry.

For anybody interested in the role of politics or the media in science, Sue Ion’s story is a must because of her work persuading the Blair government to invest in new nuclear power stations. Although nuclear is not an area I know well, I still felt that I could engage with the programme because it focused on the human aspects of Sue’s story.

We often hear about the single incident of a scientific achievement or breakthrough, but The Life Scientific gives the tale of how the scientist got there. One consequence is that the programme has low scientific content, but this is more than made up for by good story-telling.

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