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The Science Explorer and the Radio 4 science archive

Tuesday 1 November 2011, 15:00

Deborah Cohen Deborah Cohen

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The Science Explorer

It sure was a trip back in time. Could it really have been 1995 when I had interviewed Steven Pinker about his work on the mistakes young children make in language - "taked" instead of "took", and "hidded" rather than "hid"? And now Pinker is probably one of the best known psychologists in the world, causing controversy with every book he writes.

Philip from R4 interactive had appeared with a long list of programmes from the archive on neuroscience and psychology, as we were putting together the Science Explorer pages to accompany Pinker's recent interview on The Life Scientific.

The list reminded me of another story that I'd followed over the decades.

In the late 1970s there was a fashion for trying to teach apes to use sign language. In the US Herb Terrace of Columbia University worked with a chimpanzee called Nim, although he was critical of the idea that chimps could use language in a human fashion, and I produced a long interview about the experiment.

Fast forward to 2011 and the feature film Project Nim is released. We persuaded Herb Terrace into a studio in New York to discuss what had happened since to Nim and the teaching language to chimps research on Material World on Radio 4. And basically Prof Terrace told us that the whole venture was wrong headed. It's not often that a scientist will admit that. Our attitude to the great apes is so different today. And Nim lived to 20, ending his days in a reservation.

What's kept me so interested in producing and editing science programmes are the new ideas that come from the minds of the researchers and the impact they have on society. In the last thirty years we've had the appearance of AIDS and the development of drugs to keep the disease at bay; the disasters such as BSE; the controversial areas of stem cells and genetically manipulated crops; climate change; and then the pure science areas of cosmology - like seeing planets around other stars and the prediction of dark energy.

The way we cover the stories has constantly changed. Scientists have got better at communicating their ideas at a level the general public can understand. Our coverage is more informal and funny, particularly in programmes such as The Infinite Monkey Cage and Material World. Our documentaries are shorter - there are few programmes longer than 28 minutes, when in the past some were 45 minutes.

Although science is more popular with the public now than it was, it's still true that we have to work hard to get across the ideas. What hasn't changed is the fact that many listeners have forgotten all the science they were taught at school, if they had much teaching in the subjects at all. And much of the content is unfamiliar and downright weird in the case of subatomic physics.

We don't cover all aspects of science - we think some of it is just too hard to get across, and very obscure. But you can be sure to find the important stuff that you need to know to understand the modern world on Radio 4. It could be in the news bulletins, or the current affairs programmes, or in the specialist science output, such as Material World or Frontiers. And now in The Life Scientific you can hear about what makes scientists tick, how their research fits into their field and how they personally deal with adversity.

And if you have become curious about how the scientists got to where they are today go and search the Radio 4 archive. There's a wealth of programmes that will give the history of any of the current hot topics. I think the first documentary about stem cells was an episode of Frontiers from 1999.

Deborah Cohen is editor of the Radio Science Unit, BBC

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