Babbage from The Economist
Babbage: The urgency to green the electric grid
The vast majority of the energy used on Earth comes from fossil fuels. But as governments enact climate-friendly policies, electric grids need to be decarbonised, by using renewable-energy sources. And much more electricity needs to be generated too—to power transport, homes and heavy industry. Despite its urgency, redesigning electric grids is both a political and technological challenge. How can such a revolution happen?
Host Kenneth Cukier explores the mechanics of how electric grids work and how to upgrade them with The Economist’s Hal Hodson. Hal travels to Drax, a power station in the north of England, to visualise this supersized circuit with Bruce Heppenstall, the plant’s director. Plus, Hal asks Gerhard Salge, the chief technology officer of Hitachi Energy, how the latest generation of high voltage direct current cables will transform energy systems.
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Babbage: How AI promises to revolutionise science46:27Discussions about artificial intelligence tend to focus on its risks, but there is also excitement on the horizon. AI tools, like the models beneath ChatGPT, are being increasingly used by scientists for everything from finding new drugs and materials to predicting the shapes of proteins. Self-driving lab robots could take things even further towards making new discoveries. As it gets ever more useful, could AI change the scientific process altogether?Jane Dyson, structural biologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, explains why Google DeepMind’s AlphaFold tool is useful, but scientists should be aware of its limitations. This week, Google DeepMind released a new tool to unpick the link between genes and disease, as Pushmeet Kohli, head of the company’s “AI for Science” team, explains. Also, Kunal Patel, one of our producers, meets Erik Bjurström, a researcher at Chalmers University of Technology and Ross King, a professor of Machine Intelligence at Chalmers University of Technology and at the University of Cambridge. They explain why self-driving lab robots could make research more efficient. Alok Jha, The Economist’s science and technology editor hosts, with Abby Bertics, our science correspondent and Tom Standage, deputy editor. Sign up for Economist Podcasts+ now and get 50% off your subscription with our limited time offer: economist.com/podcastsplus. You will not be charged until Economist Podcasts+ launches.If you’re already a subscriber to The Economist, you’ll have full access to all our shows as part of your subscription.For more information about Economist Podcasts+, including how to get access, please visit our FAQs page.
Babbage: Mustafa Suleyman on how to prepare for the age of AI44:26Artificial intelligence and biotechnology are at the vanguard of a new era of humanity, according to Mustafa Suleyman. The entrepreneur has been at the forefront of AI development for over a decade and predicts that in the near future, everyone will have their own personal AI assistants that will plan and arrange tasks on their behalf. He also sees an acceleration in the pace of scientific discovery, with AI helping researchers tackle some of the world's grandest challenges—from climate change to famine. But these technologies also come with grave risks. In the hands of bad actors, disinformation could influence elections, or synthetic substances could be weaponised. This week, we explore how to develop the coming technologies responsibly, the hurdles that need to be overcome and how society should prepare for this new age of AI. Alok Jha, The Economist’s science and technology editor, hosts.Mustafa Suleyman is the founder of Inflection AI. He was also the co-founder of Google DeepMind. His latest book, “The Coming Wave”, explores how to navigate the opportunities and risks of fast-proliferating new technologiesFor full access to The Economist’s print, digital and audio editions subscribe at economist.com/podcastoffer and sign up for our weekly science newsletter at economist.com/simplyscience.
Babbage: Sex differences and sport39:59Some sports use different rules and equipment in the women’s game; some do not. We consider the distinction through the lenses of professional football and rugby. Scientific questions of relative performance lead to those of player safety, and ultimately to philosophy: what do varying opinions about changing women’s game reveal about the purpose of sport in society?Arve Vorland Pedersen, a sports scientist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, calculates how football’s pitches and equipment might scale to account for physiological differences. Ross Tucker, a consultant for World Rugby, describes how a trial of a smaller ball might change the game’s mechanics. Lauren Heria, a professional footballer, explains why such meddling is seen as disrespectful by many players. And Emelia Funnell, a researcher at Ida Sports, reveals why ignorance about ACL injuries among women traces back to male cadavers. Host Alok Jha, The Economist’s science and technology editor, is joined by Abby Bertics, our science correspondent (and a former professional volleyball player).For full access to The Economist’s print, digital and audio editions subscribe at economist.com/podcastoffer and sign up for our weekly science newsletter at economist.com/simplyscience.
Babbage: El Niño is back, and he looks angry39:17Extreme weather is constantly in the news, but a new factor is just getting warmed up: El Niño. This Pacific Ocean phenomenon can have devastating effects in some parts of the world while benefiting others; it is linked to droughts as well as floods; and this year’s looks like it may be severe.Maarten van Aalst, a professor of climate and disaster resilience at the University of Twente, explains how the current El Niño will affect the climate in unpredictable ways. Chris Funk, the director of the Climate Hazards Center at the University of California Santa Barbara, looks at global effects that are already under way. Plus, the harrowing tale of Jack Egan, who lost his home to bushfires in Australia during the last El Niño event. Catherine Brahic, The Economist’s environment editor, and our correspondent Rachel Dobbs consider how prepared countries are for this event. Alok Jha, The Economist’s science and technology editor, hosts.For full access to The Economist’s print, digital and audio editions subscribe at economist.com/podcastoffer and sign up for our weekly science newsletter at economist.com/simplyscience.
Babbage: How to learn to love maths, with Eugenia Cheng34:11While some people enjoy learning maths, the subject haunts many children throughout school and beyond. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Eugenia Cheng, a mathematician and author of “Is Maths Real?”, explains why, to her, maths is a joyful enterprise. In this interview with Alok Jha, The Economist’s science and technology editor, Eugenia explores how asking seemingly simple questions can uncover deep mysteries beneath the sums. She also argues that education systems should rethink the way that the subject is taught, to encourage curiosity and creativity.For full access to The Economist’s print, digital and audio editions subscribe at economist.com/podcastoffer and sign up for our weekly science newsletter at economist.com/simplyscience.
Babbage: The race to the Moon’s South Pole43:02In the coming days, both Russia and India hope to land robotic probes near the South Pole of the Moon. Conquering the South Pole remains one of the grandest challenges in lunar science, but it’s a potentially rewarding endeavour. If evidence of water is found it will make human settlements much more likely. But the significance of the missions racing for the Moon, Luna-25 and Chandrayaan-3, go beyond science. Russia’s space agency has become isolated after the country’s invasion of Ukraine, while India’s space agency seeks to raise its profile. In an increasingly polarised world, is there any hope for an international agreement on humanity’s use of the Moon?Sam Dayala, a former director at the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology and India’s space agency, explains the aims of Chandrayaan-3. Simeon Barber, a planetary scientist at the Open University who works with the European Space Agency, discusses Russia’s Luna missions and why his drilling package has been removed from the Luna-27 probe. Natan Eismont of the Russian Academy of Sciences explains his desire for renewed global collaboration, despite the political backdrop. Plus, Asif Siddiqi of Fordham University and Raji Rajagopalan of the Observer Research Foundation, reflect on the stakes if a consensus on the use of the Moon isn’t agreed internationally. Gilead Amit, The Economist’s science correspondent, hosts, with Oliver Morton, a senior editor at The Economist.For full access to The Economist’s print, digital and audio editions subscribe at economist.com/podcastoffer and sign up for our weekly science newsletter at economist.com/simplyscience.
Babbage: Advances in healthcare technology38:24Attending a science festival or an exhibition can be an exciting day out, while also being hugely informative. Natasha Loder, The Economist’s health editor visits the Royal Society’s summer exhibition to play with both the simple and cutting-edge technologies that have potential for healthcare. Natasha asks Clem Burke, drummer of the rock band Blondie, and Marcus Smith of the University of Chichester how drumming can help children with autism. Natasha also meets Lorenzo Picinali, of Imperial College London, who explains why creating audio that feels three-dimensional could be useful for people with sensory impairment. Plus, Sumeet Mahajan of the University of Southampton demonstrates how technology used in NASA’s Mars rover can be applied to the early detection of diseases. Gilead Amit, The Economist’s science correspondent, hosts. For full access to The Economist’s print, digital and audio editions subscribe at economist.com/podcastoffer and sign up for our weekly science newsletter at economist.com/simplyscience.
Babbage: Are auctioned dinosaur fossils lost to science?43:31Natural history auctions are on the rise and are generating millions of dollars for private fossil hunters, but the commercialisation of ancient bones is worrying some palaeontologists. They argue that specimens sold privately are lost to science. Yet others say that by disincentivising the black market and encouraging more enthusiasts to search for rare finds, fossil auctions could improve the scientific understanding of ancient reptiles. The Economist’s Dylan Barry explores the Natural History Museum’s fossil collection in London, with Paul Barrett, a palaeontologist. Dylan also chats to the “dinosaur cowboy”, Clayton Phipps, a commercial fossil prospector, about his discovery of the “duelling dinosaurs” and how ranchers benefit from finding dinosaur bones. Plus, Cassandra Hatton, the vice president and head of natural history of Sotheby’s, an auction house, argues that auctioneers and palaeontologists should see each other as being on the same side. Kenneth Cukier hosts.For full access to The Economist’s print, digital and audio editions subscribe at economist.com/podcastoffer and sign up for our weekly science newsletter at economist.com/simplyscience.
Babbage: How good can weather forecasting get?43:17In recent weeks, extreme heat, floods and storms have smashed records and caused devastation around the world. Freak weather events such as these will become more frequent due to climate change—but they are exceptionally hard to predict. How are meteorologists gearing up to face the enormous challenge of predicting the weather in a warming world? Andrew Charlton-Perez, at the University of Reading in Britain, explains how weather forecasts are made—and why meteorology is such a complicated science. The Economist’s Rachel Dobbs investigates the next frontiers in forecasting. She asks Sam Levang, the chief scientist at Salient Predictions, how artificial intelligence can play a role in improving predictions of the weather. Rachel also visits the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts’s data centre in Bologna, Italy, to understand how a combination of technological approaches will be required to make weather forecasting fit for the 21st century. Alok Jha, The Economist’s science and technology editor, hosts.For full access to The Economist’s print, digital and audio editions subscribe at economist.com/podcastoffer and sign up for our weekly science newsletter at economist.com/simplyscience.