Category Archives: Science


Finally managed to get myself a showreel, made by the fantastic Trunkman Productions.

More about my speaking and presenting work here.

BOOK UPDATE! Extract and discount code now available

Herding Hemingway's CatsOH MY GOD – it’s all getting a bit too exciting! My new book, Herding Hemingway’s Cats, has finally gone off to print. I’ve recorded the audiobook (amazing fun but such hard work)  and you can now read an extract from it here on the interwebs.

It’s launching in the UK on Thursday 14th January, and I’ll be hosting a fantastic event at the Royal Institution in London that evening from 7pm-8,30pm (SQUEEEEE!!!) featuring talks and discussion from me and two characters who appear in the book – Anne Ferguson-Smith from Cambridge University and Ben Lehner from Barcelona. Find out more and buy tickets now.

And if that has whetted your appetite, my publisher Bloomsbury Sigma is offering a super discount if you pre-order it direct from their website using the discount code GENES. Click here and buy buy buy!

Have a lovely Christmas and new year. Roll on 2016 – year of The Book!


Save the Naked Scientists – Update 3: the Pod Delusion

I managed to get my act together enough to do a spectacular little rant for the Pod Delusion podcast. Listen and download here – my bit starts at 48min36. For those of you that prefer reading to listening, there’s a transcript below. There’s also an update on the situation on the Naked Scientists Facebook page:

Do you love science? Of course you do! So do the Naked Scientists – we’re a group of researchers and medics who’ve produced and presented a weekly BBC radio  show on Sunday nights for the best part of a decade, covering science, medicine, technology and all that kind of stuff. I was just a radio nipper when I started co-presenting the show back then and my voice sounded like this.

You might have only heard us on radio if you’re in the Eastern counties of England – Norfolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire and the like – but our podcasts have been downloaded by millions of people around the world, bringing great science radio to the ears of local and international listeners. And all of this from a little BBC radio studio in Cambridge.

In case you haven’t listened to the Naked Scientists, we aim to make science fun and understandable – we present the latest discoveries, speak to amazing researchers in academia and Industry from East Anglia, the rest of the UK and around the world, have phone-ins where people can ask us questions, and kitchen science where you can join in with experiments at home – all with a hefty dose of fun. The good kind, not the zany kind. It’s exactly what the BBC should be doing – it’s educational, information and entertaining, and it’s now being axed.

Yes, as of January 2013, the Naked Scientists will no longer be gracing the BBC airwaves across the Eastern counties. Let’s be clear – this isn’t a financial decision. The Naked Scientists is funded by grants, and we cost the BBC only £40 a show. To put it in perspective, George Entwistle’s recent Director General payoff would have paid for 11,000 shows. I only get paid £50 a show, which also cover the hours of prep each show takes.

No. The BBC have made this decision on so-called editorial grounds for two reasons – firstly, that we’re too specialist. Unlike the specialist gardening, religion, country music or other specialist shows they have. No, science, technology and medicine are somehow too niche for local radio to cope with, despite it touching all our lives, and also being a rapidly growing area of popular culture – OH HAI BRIAN COX!

The BBC have also said that the show isn’t local enough, despite being helmed by a local doctor, Chris Smith, and broadcast from what I certainly consider to be one of the greatest scientific hubs in the world – Cambridge (yeah, you wanna fight about it?). We feature a whole host of local researchers, not just from Cambridge but from the region. And how did the BBC get the idea that only local science is relevant to local people. Does Suffolk not have chlorophyll? Do the good citizens of Norwich not get cancer? Do satellites give Ipswich the swerve when they go over? (well, I wouldn’t blame them…)

The Naked Scientists should be a jewel in the local radio crown. Instead, they’re axing it to give more time to those vital issues of generic music and tedious chit-chat. And as a local musician whose band is based in Cambridge, I find this a double slap in the face – it’s not like they’re pledging to play only local music! It seems like only local science is local enough for local people, but music from across the world is fine. And in my day job for Cancer Research UK I often go on local radio to talk about national or even global cancer news stories, so I know that local audiences are interested in national and international science.

Feeling outraged yet? You should be. But you can help to save the Naked Scientists. We need to get loads of people to tell the BBC that local radio listeners deserve better, and that perhaps the Naked Scientists should have an even wider audience. How about that shiny new BBC England station they’re starting up next year that’s going to replace some of the oh-so-precious local programming with national programmes anyway? Here are the people to email with your thoughts, so go and get a pen.

Alison Hastings – at the BBC trust. She deals with local radio issues, and her email address is

David Holdsworth is the controller for BBC England. He’s

And Mick Rawsthorne is the regional controller for the Eastern counties – that’s

All these addresses and more info are on the Naked Scientists Facebook page – that’s

Thanks for listening and thanks for your support. If you care about helping local people everywhere to discover more about science, medicine and technology, then please help to save the Naked Scientists.

Save the Naked Scientists – Update 2 and more actions

TL;DR version: The BBC’s reasoning is still ridiculous. Please email:

to ask them why they’re taking the Naked Scientists off the air in the Eastern Counties, and why they can’t find room in the new BBC England schedule to make it a national local radio programme.  This is especially important if you live in the Eastern region. You can also email your MP.

Last week Professor Stephen Curry wrote eloquently on the Guardian’s Science Blogs about the BBC axing the Naked Scientists from its local output in the Eastern Counties. He also very kindly wrote to Mick Rawsthorne, the  controller for the BBC Eastern region, to complain about the decision. Here’s the reply he got:

“Dear Professor Curry,
There has been a lot of feedback and we have taken that into account when considering our decisions on the future of science coverage on Radio Cambridgeshire. I hope you will be pleased to hear that we want to retain Naked Scientists, albeit with a tighter remit, in the schedules.

‪As background although the original decision to review the programme was not because of the current round of budget cuts required by the licence fee settlement, it was driven by the context of limited resources and our need to prioritise those resources and airtime on our core purpose to serve local audiences with output that has a local focus.

‪Although admirable Naked Scientists has had a different brief, that made it in reality a national programme serving a national and indeed an international audience. To retain a programme like Naked Scientists on local radio the editorial focus had to change.

We’ve developed two new proposals. First, we intend to invest in improved local science coverage for the mainstream audience on the radio station. We are of course conscious that science is an important part of the economic and academic story around Cambridge, a point that many correspondents have made in the debate about Naked Scientists.

‪The station will use a science specialist advising the editorial team on the most important local science stories and how best to cover them. This expert will be a regular on air contributor on the station’s biggest shows. Our two most popular programmes will also work to specific targets in terms of science items. I hope this will all translate into better and more distinctive coverage for the local audience.

Secondly with this extra expertise, we believe it is possible to continue broadcasting a programme like Naked Scientists, while adjusting the brief to give science stories from Cambridgeshire and local connections a higher profile in the running order. Exact details about when it will be broadcast have still to be finalised, because of other unavoidable schedule changes planned on Sundays across the local radio network. We will need to talk further to the current programme team before finalising plans.

‪I appreciate you writing to us and your comments. We have taken all the different views into account when revising our decisions on the future of science coverage on Radio Cambridgeshire. I hope you will also regard this note as evidence of how much importance we place on coverage of science in all parts of the BBC.

Well, this is interesting. Rawsthorne says they want scientific experts who will help their editorial teams get more science into other shows in the schedule. But they already have that – they’re called the Naked Scientists. The majority of local radio journalists in the region come to Ben and Chris for advice on science stories, and Chris guests on other shows (such as Sue Marchant’s – also being axed) to bring science content into other shows.

We’re also intrigued by the concept of “science targets” – I would love to know what they are, exactly how much science we can expect to be covered on local radio, and in what kind of depth? Churning out the latest crappy press release on goji berries and cancer, I expect. And what happens if these as-yet-undefined targets aren’t met? Nothing, I’d bet.

Rawsthorne also alludes to a new version of the Naked Scientists that could still be broadcast. From my discussions with the Naked Scientists team I believe that this would be a half hour show at an unknown time in the Sunday schedule, restricted solely to covering Cambridge scientists and broadcast only on Radio Cambridgeshire – a reduction from 8 counties to just 1.

There are a couple of flaws in this cunning plan. For a start, Cambridge isn’t the only science centre in the Eastern region. Norwich is a major University town boasting UEA, the Institute of Food Research, the John Innes Research Centre, and a medical school at the main hospital. Do they not deserve some local science coverage too?

And the idea that only local science is local enough for local people is frankly ridiculous – do trees in Suffolk not have chlorophyll? Do the good citizens of Norwich not get cancer? Do satellites give Ipswich the swerve when they go over? No. And to suggest that local radio listeners somehow don’t merit one single hour of specialist science coverage in an entire week’s output (168 hours – that’s a hell of a lot of Take That and traffic news)  is as patronising as it is offensive.

Furthermore in a further email to Professor Curry, Rawsthorne clarified that “The current proposal does only apply to Cambridgeshire with its special association with science. Of course the programme would be available on the BBC I-player and therefore anyone in the East or indeed across the country will be able to listen to it.” 

So let’s get this straight: local people in Cambridge are only entitled to hear dedicated programming about science that’s local to them, but anyone anywhere else in the region or the country who might want to find out about it can listen again on iPlayer. Errr, excuse me Mr Rawsthorne, I thought you said that local people would only be interested in a show dedicated to local science, but now you’re saying that people all over the region or the country would want to listen to it too.  But what about listeners in Norwich, or Ipswich, or Manchester, or anywhere else – why would they want to hear only about Cambridge science? And why do you think your own local listeners don’t want to hear a dedicated show about local, national and international science? I smell a logical flaw.

Furthermore, at a time of belt-tightening at the BBC, producing more content to fill the gap left by the Naked Scientists is going to cost MORE, not less. Each show costs the BBC £40 – George Entwhistle’s recent payoff would pay for 11,000 shows! – it’s implausible that paying for new content on the seven other stations to fill the void left by our show would cost as little. Unless, of course, they’re just going to fill it with recycled rubbish and yet more generic music programming or national content from the yet-to-be-launched BBC England (part of the laughably-named “Delivering Quality First” strategy). Where’s your oh-so-precious commitment to “local radio for local people” now?

So – what can you do to help save the Naked Scientists? Please email:

to ask them why they’re taking the Naked Scientists off the air in the Eastern Counties, and why they can’t find room in the new BBC England schedule to make it a national local radio programme. This is especially important if you live in the Eastern Counties.

It would also help a lot if you emailed your MP if you live in the Eastern region – we already have the support of Cambridge MP Julian Huppert, but I’m sure he just loves getting emails 🙂

Save the Naked Scientists – Update and actions

The campaign to save the Naked Scientists radio show from being axed by the BBC Eastern region after 10 glorious years is gathering pace. This week we’ve seen articles in the Guardian Science blogs from Stephen Curry and Wired Magazine’s Nate Lanxon, both highly critical of the BBC’s decision, as well as a slew of supportive social media posts, a Twitter ‘Mexican Wave’ around the world during Sunday’s show, and countless emails to the BBC.

However, the BBC remain deaf to the huge listener response – this is the standard reply that most people seem to be getting, and frankly it’s the same unjustified bullsh*t that Eastern region controller Mick Rawsthorne spouted on BBC Radio 4’s Feedback programme last week

Thank you for your e-mail regarding ‘Naked Scientists’ which you sent to the Head of Regional and Local Programmes for the East region, who has forwarded your concerns to BBC audience Services to respond to.

The show is a specialist science programme that succeeds in communicating challenging and difficult scientific ideas in an accessible and engaging way. This is a key commitment the BBC needs to continue to maintain. But no single show can be the sole way to measure whether that commitment is discharged. The BBC is very committed to providing high quality science content on all platforms. This content reaches more than 40 million people in the UK a year. The BBC works with the world’s most influential scientists to produce high quality science series that engage the audience while tackling everything from
thermodynamics to information theory, artificial intelligence and the
origins of life.

Over the past few weeks BBC Four has dedicated an entire season of
 programmes to some of the most complicated science subjects on television with Seven Ages of Starlight, the Science of Chance, and Order and Disorder with Jim Al-Khalili. The BBC has long-standing science strands like Horizon on TV and radio programmes like the Infinite Monkey Cage. And the BBC now has a Science Editor for the first time to try to ensure the most important developments in science are reported across BBC news and factual programmes.

So why has the east region chosen to end the Naked Scientists programme? The decision is editorial; the show doesn’t fit the local radio brief.  Local radio’s editorial role is to report local stories, local events and reflect local communities. The Naked Scientists, while excellent in reporting science, isn’t really a local radio programme at all as it doesn’t fit that core local editorial function. That’s not to say local radio shouldn’t report science-it should but its primary responsibility is to report local science. Our aim is to ensure that we do even better in reporting science in our mainstream output especially on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire with its obvious connections to science at the University, research institutes and scientific industries. We’re speaking to the Naked Scientists team about how they can help us in this ambition. We’re also speaking to other parts of the BBC to explore how the Naked Scientists team can have a role in creating science content.

We will be developing and strengthening our science reporting capacity across our mainstream output to reflect the significance of science in the area.  Listeners will hear more science stories in the parts of the schedule with the biggest audiences. 

We’re sorry you’re losing a show you value highly but we hope you find other parts of the BBC’s extensive science output just as valuable.

I’d also like to assure you I’ve registered your complaint on our audience log. This is an internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily and is available for viewing by all our staff. This includes all programme makers and commissioning executives, along with our senior management. It ensures that your points, along with all other comments we receive, are considered across the BBC.

We have to keep pushing this poor and unjustified decision – please email the following people to express your concern and disappointment at the BBC’s decision to axe the show, and ask that it either be reinstated or put onto a national network.

  • – The BBC Trustee who deals with local radio
  • – Controller of BBC England
  • – The BBC’s Science Editor, who was brought in “as part of the BBC’s drive to improve science coverage“. WT actual F???

The BBC pays £40 a show for the Naked Scientists, and I’ve personally been co-presenting for many years unpaid, and only in the past few years receiving £50 per show, for several hours of prep work and an hour of presenting. This is a pittance, and proves that the decision is being made on ideological grounds rather than financial ones. The BBC simply doesn’t think that local radio deserves informative, entertaining and educational science content, and should just be chock-full of boring music programmes.

As an extra kicker, one of the long-time champions of local music radio, Sue Marchant on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire (who’s been a long-time friend of my Cambridge-based band Sunday Driver and had us on her show several times, as well as featuring the Naked Scientists) is also being axed. And what are they replacing the Naked Scientists with? More generic music. As a musician I wouldn’t mind so much if it was all local bands, but it’s not – American Country? Northern Soul? All good music, but hardly has a local flavour.

The Naked Scientists is an award-winning, unique and very popular show that reaches far beyond its region to hundreds of thousands of listeners around the world. It should be the jewel in the region’s crown and – ideally – getting national exposure. All I can conclude is that the BBC’s commitment to science is as hollow as an empty volumetric flask.

Naked Scientists to be axed by BBC local radio

I never thought I’d have much in common with Danny Baker, but now I do. The Naked Scientists BBC Radio show, which I’ve helped to present for the best part of a decade, is being axed by BBC East for (what seems to me to be) no good reason.

Here’s what Chris Smith has to say on the Naked Scientists facebook page – please read and take action by contacting Feedback or the BBC Trust (email addresses below). And especially if you live in the Eastern region, email the regional head of programming Mick Rawsthorne

BBC HEAD OF EASTERN REGION GRILLED on national radio (Radio 4, Feedback…rammes/b01nq3lx) over proposed culling of the Naked Scientists.

Owing to significant listener protest regarding the BBC’s intended removal of the Naked Scientists from the Eastern Region’s Sunday schedules from January 2013, the BBC Radio 4 Feedback programme interviewed the regional head, Mick Rawsthorne, about his decision.

In the interview, in which Rawsthorne was forced to admit that the Naked Scientists is “a very good programme”, and that it is based in a very science and technology-centric part of the country, Cambridge, he then claimed that the programme is not sufficiently local.

Unfortunately, Mick seems to be suffering from ill-acquaintance with his own radio schedule, a touch of amnesia, or a poor background knowledge of geography.

Because a glance at Sunday’s regional line up – or tuning in on a Sunday afternoon – confirms that, for several hours immediately before the Naked Scientists, the airwaves are filled with American country music. Very nice for people who like that kind of thing, but not terrible local. Whoops!

Next, Mick overlooks that, from January, his radio stations will be linking up with every other local radio station in the country to form “Radio England” for 3 hours every night of the week.

Hhmm. That doesn’t sound very local either. So how is this justified, but an hour of science is not?

Next we hear that apparently Mick “doesn’t do” specialist shows.

Yet again the schedule disagrees, revealing quite a few gardening programmes scattered through the week. And having listened to them, they’re great – Peter Jackson and Ken Crowther are brilliant – but they’re also very specialist, not to mention non-inclusive for people that live in flats or apartments without gardens. Then there are the specialist shows on various musical genres, then specialist faith programmes, and then specialist sport programmes. So what exactly does “specialist” mean? Clearly just “science” in this instance.

Mick’s proposed solution to the impending removal of the Naked Scientists – and he’s assured us that Cambridge has a specific remit to deliver specialist science coverage – is to weave coverage of locally relevant science stories into existing programming. In other words, reading between the lines, to reduce science to a series of short commentaries and soundbites dotted amongst the pop-songs.

So no opportunity for (local) audiences to interact, no incisive interviews with scientists by science-specialist interviewers, and no way for science-interested parties being able to make an appointment with a programme at a dedicated time to listen to it.

We know of school teachers who set listening to our programme as part of the homework for their classes. They won’t be able to do that if the reports are dotted all over the place.

Overall, we felt that the explanation offered for the removal of the Naked Scientists was weak and unimaginative and little more than “box ticking”.

Mick Rawsthorne appears to be remaining faithful to his intention to remove the Naked Scientists from January 2013, and we’ve certainly received no offers, either from the region or another network, to continue our involvement or contributions, yet.

We urge you to listen to the episode of feedback containing his explanations (you’ve got about 3 days until it expires), and then please contact feedback – – as well as the BBC Trust – to tell them whether you agree or disagree and are satisfied and convinced by the arguments put forward…

Thank you, Chris Smith and the Naked Scientists team.

Another Radio 4 documentary – Whatever Happened to the Chemistry Set?

Chemistry sets

Old chemistry sets at the Whipple Museum for the History of Science in Cambridge

Yet another thing keeping me busy has been making my second BBC Radio 4 documentary, following last year’s Fighting the Power of Pink.

This time producer Julian Mayers and I set out to answer the question “Whatever happened to the chemistry set?”

The programme is going out on BBC Radio 4 at 9pm tonight (Wednesday 1st August) and will be on iPlayer for a week after that. I’ve also written a short piece about it for the Guardian’s Science Blog, and there’s a nice article in the BBC Magazine.

Perhaps most excitingly of all, it was featured in the Radio Times! (I’ll scan in the paper copy when I get home…)

Have a listen, let me know what you think:


Huge thanks to Julian Mayers at Testbed Productions for actually doing the hard work, while I just chatted to people and played with the chemicals 🙂

New project alert! The Naked Genetics podcast, from the Naked Scientists

Naked GeneticsAnother thing that’s been keeping me busy lately is producing, presenting and launching a brand new monthly series of podcasts for the Naked Scientists. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… *drum roll*…

Naked Genetics – taking a look inside your genes.

From plants to pathogens, fruit flies to fungi and hamsters to humans, the Naked Genetics podcast takes a look at the science of genes – the blueprint of life. With in-depth interviews with leading scientists, the latest news from the world of genetics, answers to your burning questions, and (my favourite bit) gene of the month. So far we’ve got five episodes up:

The next show, due out on 14th August, is all about epigenetics – a subject that’s very dear to my heart. Listen, download and subscribe from the Naked Scientists website.

The Naked Genetics podcast is produced in association with the Genetics Society.

A quick pimp for BPOD

BPODNo real blogging for the time being – I’m still mad busy. In the meantime, here’s a quick pimp for something that’s been taking up my time – writing for the Biomedical Picture of the Day (BPOD), run by the Medical Research Council.

The premise is simple, based on the Astronomy Picture of the Day – the editors pick an intriguing and/or beautiful biomedical image, and get one of the writing team to conjour up a few lines about it.

I’m thrilled to be involved in this project, as I think it really showcases the beauty in the biological world. Here are a few of the pics I’ve written about:

Pop over to the main BPOD site for a daily dose of biomedical beauty, and join their Facebook page to get in on the action.

Bees in danger! (from Satan)

We get a lot of junk mail through our front door, mainly because we are too lazy to put up a “No Junk Mail” sign and anyway they just ignore it and ram the letterbox full of pizza leaflets and poorly spelled (and curiously identical) advertisments for psychics.

Most of this goes straight in the recycling, but one caught my eye and has made it onto the Pinboard of Wonder (aka the fridge):


At first I thought it was from a local environmental group or somesuch. The text inside starts off as a paean to the humble bee:


“The consumption of honey is good for health. “Learn from the bee” is a counsel for the lazy. We will be surprised if we observe how the bees work. When the morning sun rises, they beging their work. The queen bee lays eggs and soon they hatch and a new generation is born.

It is a pleasure to observe a honeycomb. The bees suck honey from flowers and fill the cells in the honeycomb. the bees work together. but every bee has its own work. how beautifully they make a house for 5,000 bees without consulting an architect.

But does anyone know that there is a danger hidden in the honeycomb? A small germ enters the body of one bee. Gradually all the bes get infected by this.  Thus, because of one germ, the entire colony on bees dies.”

ZOMG! They’re talking about colony collapse disorder! (although, according to Wikipedia, the cause is unknown, rather than ‘germs’).  I read further. Oh no, my mistake – they’re talking about God. Sneaky! The leaflet goes on:

“The same way, sin entered mankind. Satan deceived man who was made in the image of God and made him sin…(continues in guilt-ridden ‘you’re going to hell’ vein for another page and a half)”

I’m very familiar with the “scientific” arguments that get bandied around about religious creationism vs evolution (or creationsim vs reality, as I like to think of it). But seriously, bees?

I’m vaguely annoyed that a serious environmental issue has been hijacked by the God squad. The only thing bees have in common with Jesus is the letters E and S. Unless you spell it Bejesus, in which case you can get the whole word out of it.