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Where will science take us in the future?
Wednesdays 1 - 22 January 2003 9.00-9.30pm

Despite predictions that science will run out of things to discover, changes in direction never cease to occur. This series explores where science will lead us as we probe deeper into space, uncover more of the mystery of genetic coding and delve yet further into the atom.

Jodrell Bank
Jodrell Bank

In 1899 the head of the American patent office suggested that his operation be closed down as there could barely be anything left to discover. Such pronouncements on the end of science almost invariably come to grief, but given that we now appear to understand the basics of how the world around us works, are there really any more major discoveries to make, or merely incremental steps towards refining the scientific framework we already have? Have we in fact got the overarching theories correct now so that it is purely a matter of filling in the details, or are there still opportunities for potential Einsteins to build on or even to overturn the basic precepts of science?
Lord May

In this provocative series Professor Bob May, President of the Royal Society, talks to leaders in the fields of neuroscience, physics, genetics and cosmology about what they believe the future will hold for them and whether anything can challenge our current model of the universe. He asks those involved in cutting edge projects to split the atom, probe deeper into space, watch the brain in action and produce the next generation of genetically modified organisms what lies in store. Will future scientific revolutions make their discoveries futile?

"These programmes", says presenter Bob May, "aim to do exactly what it says in the title and ask what remains to be discovered". He emphasises the word discovered, meaning things that are already out there in the Universe rather than purely human inventions. So these are programmes about the basic laws of science and not about technology or medicine.

The series will be questioning the extent of our knowledge - and our ignorance - and taking a speculative look at what is yet to come. Historically, science has been very good at painstaking research that answers what questions, the basic descriptions and classifications of nature. As it progresses it has come to answer how questions about the processes at work and the relationships between them. But could it be that scientists can soon pose why questions and discover the reasons that the Universe is arranged the way it is?

The scope of the programmes is vast - life, the Universe and everything, including our own mind, human consciousness.

Programme 1

The first programme looks outward into space and discovers how the biggest telescopes on earth and in space can survey the Universe on the largest scales, revealing its structure and the powerful forces which shape it. Light from the most distant stars and galaxies has taken billions of years to reach us so astronomers are seeing those objects as they were when the Universe was young. So when and how did the first stars switch on and begin to cluster together? Can we see further back still, into the dark age of the Universe? Can we pick up the echoes of the Big Bang itself from which our Universe formed? And can theory or even experiment take us back to the very beginning and explain how it all began and, ultimately, how it will all end? And, perhaps the biggest question of all, are we alone in this vast cosmos or are there other life forms out there, perhaps more intelligent than ourselves and ready to communicate their secrets?

Listen again to programme 1 Listen again to programme 1

Programme 2

Programme two looks at something with which we are all very familiar, though few of us have ever seen. It is the most complex structure in the known universe: the human brain. But just how does it work? How do we think, feel, laugh and cry? How do we sense the world around us and recognise the things within it? How do we form memories and where do we store them? Above all, what is it that makes us conscious and how can we study that consciousness objectively when it is only accessible from the inside? How can we tell that anyone other than ourself is conscious? If we could create a machine that behaved exactly like a human being, would it be conscious? And could we ever know for certain? Is consciousness firmly rooted within the physical brain or can it in some way extend beyond the brain. Why do so many of us hope that we are more than simply wonderful machines?

Listen again to programme 2 Listen again to programme 2

Programme 3

In programme three we go back to basics and investigate the nature of matter and the basic laws of physics. Just what is the Universe made of? It seems that the familiar matter that makes up our bodies, our planet and the stars is only a trivial, trace component of the cosmos, so what is the rest? What are the basic components which make up matter, deep within the heart of the atom? What gives them the basic properties they possess such as mass and electric charge? What are the forces that bind them together and how are they related? Have the constants of physics always been constant or are they themselves evolving with the Universe? At the deepest level, is matter made, as it seems, of physical components in the familiar three dimensional world we are used to, or could it be, as some theories suggest, tiny loops of multi-dimensional string in a world of up to 11 dimensions!

Listen again to programme 3 Listen again to programme 3

Programme 4

The final programme investigates the secrets of life. Just how did life begin? Could the incredible complexities of even the most basic lifeforms we know have begun as chance chemistry? Exactly what is life? We've mapped be genome but to what extent can that tell us exactly how or bodies work, how they develop their complex structures from a single fertilised egg. Even at a basic level, can our genes explain why cells divide, grow and specialise or occasionally turn cancerous? Will we ever know enough to be able to live forever, and if we could, would we want to?!

Listen again to programme 4 Listen again to programme 4

Professor Bob May is a leading academic who has been described as Britain's top scientist. In public life he is Lord May of Oxford and the President of the Royal Society. He has also been science adviser to the Cabinet Office. So he speaks with authority himself and can cut to the heart of the matter when questioning the leading thinkers of our time.

Let us hear your thoughts about the issues raised in this series on the Radio 4 Science Message Board.

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