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Rough Science
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About the TV Series

Episode Descriptions

Led by host Kate Humble, five scientists are challenged to put their collective scientific knowledge to practical use. Transported to isolated locations, they are presented with a series of tasks, with two notable restrictions: they must complete their work within three days and, with the exception of a rudimentary tool kit, they must use only indigenous materials.


PBS Season 1:


Series 1: Mediterranean

Episode 1 — Mediterranean Mystery: Swapping their high-tech labs for a disused prison, the five scientists are ferried to a mystery Mediterranean island where they must pool their collective wits. Can they work out their exact latitude and longitude, manufacture an insect repellent from scratch, and improvise a radio from an old saucepan?

Episode 2 — Simmering Shutterbugs: Our scientists have worked out where they are on the globe, but can they now master a series of science-based challenges using just the natural resources of the island? Can they improvise a low-tech camera and film, make a compass to get their bearings, and dye a flag? Seawater, seaweed and urine prove to be indispensable ingredients, but things don't quite go to plan.

Episode 3 — Power Supplies: In this episode, two of the team go head to head in a race to generate power, while the others set about building a pharmacy. They extract and dispense a string of natural remedies, including an antiseptic made from myrtle and olives, and an anti-flatulent from fennel seeds

Episode 4 — Sustenance and Sayonara: Wrapping up their stay on their isolated Mediterranean island, the scientists face the challenge of using their science skills to put food on the table. One of them faces an epic struggle to make soap to clean the dishes, while two other team members improvise toothpaste from seaweed, seashells and mint. They also try to make a record player.

Series 2: Carriacou

Episode 1 — Mapping it Out: Kate Humble and the team of five scientists take up the challenge of charting the sights and sounds of their tropical island. Starting from scratch, they have to make an accurate scale map, botanical paper and inks, and a sound-recording device. The team members have very good heads for math and plenty of versatile local plants to get them started, but impassable mangrove swamps and tropical downpours soon seem intent on scuttling their plans.

Episode 2 — Bugs and Barometers: The team has to pit their wits against nature — and bugs — in the latest challenge. Can they get a biology lab (to make and test antibacterial cream), microscope and weather station (barometer, hygrometer, anemometer) built and tested on their tropical island? With only a basic toolkit to work with, the island's plants and seaweed have to be employed — and with nothing but clear skies weather forecasting can still be a little problematic.

Episode 3 — Time and Transmitters: The scientists find they have to borrow some wartime tricks when challenged with building a transmitter and radio — but will they be able to communicate across their tropical island base? There's also an accurate portable clock and a botanical kite to design, and, once again, the island's natural plants and resources get the scientists thoughts running in strange new directions.

Episode 4 — Feel the Heat: The challenges don't come much tougher than this as the team of scientists tackles the task of lowering the temperature on their sweltering tropical island base. The chemistry of cooling paradoxically seems to involve heating things up first. With just three days to complete the task of making ice, as well as producing working thermometers and sunscreen, their patience is soon simmering.

Episode 5 — Sun and Sea: The challenge of building an underwater light to examine the marine life around their tropical island base finds the team grappling with natural power sources (filaments and phosphorus from cow bones). The scientists find they need a little human elbow grease to generate electricity to charge up a battery.

Episode 6 — The Science of Celebration: The science of sound and fireworks helps the team devise ways of going out with a bang in the last set of challenges on their Carribean island. Tasked with creating a concert and spectacle to light up the Caribbean night sky, the scientists find they are struggling to find harmony, while their pyrotechnics seem to generate more heat than light. Can they turn it around to stage a spectacular finale?


PBS Season 2:

Series 3: New Zealand

Episode 1 — Gold Rush: Our intrepid team of boffins — all from different scientific disciplines — are ready for the daunting challenges imposed by host Kate Humble. And the tasks are formidable from the start. The scientists begin by trying to collect gold from a river, building a homemade metal detector and constructing a super-accurate balance, capable of weighing micrograms of gold.

Episode 2 — Shakers: With only half a gram of gold so far, Humble puts the pressure on the team to continue their search. Among this episode's challenges are building an automated gold-panning machine and discovering the date of the last major earthquake in the area. As a treat for the work-weary scientists, Mike Bullivant is given the task of making an indulgent hand cream from sheep's wool.

Episode 3 — Quakers: The two Mikes — Bullivant and Leahy — are sent on an overnight expedition to find gold-bearing rock. First, they need to build their own waterproof tent to keep them dry, warm and protected from the unpredictable climate on the island. Meanwhile, Kathy Sykes and Jonathan Hare are tasked with making a seismograph and measuring earthquake activity in the area.

Episode 4 — Ice: Kate Humble takes the Rough Scientists away from their epic quest for New Zealand gold and sets them one of the toughest challenges yet. The team must measure the speed and melt of the Franz Josef Glacier, an awesome seven miles of ice. In addition, the scientists have to keep themselves warm on the ice without lighting fires. With just a basic toolkit and the island's natural resources at their disposal, they build an ice lens and generate chemical heat. The team must draw on their pooled ingenuity and scientific knowledge to complete these seemingly impossible tasks.

Episode 5 — Treasure Hunt: In the penultimate episode, the team of scientists have managed to collect three grams of gold — but is this sufficient to make a pure gold souvenir? With the deadline looming, Humble sets three more tough challenges. The scientists need to extract gold from rock, from sand and also find buried gold using a treasure map. As the tension mounts, the team combine their skills and experience and resort to some unlikely gold prospecting techniques to build a rock-crushing device and an altimeter to locate that pot of gold.

Episode 6 — The Big Smelt: It is D-Day for the Rough Science team, who must build a furnace to smelt and form their gold into souvenirs of their six-week stay in New Zealand. Firstly, they must turn their powdered gold flakes into a solid nugget and, in order to do so, they must reach a white-hot 1062°C — the temperature at which gold melts. The team uses science to re-discover the skills of the original prospectors who, over 150 years ago, worked gold into beautiful objects. Will the scientists manage to make anything from the precious stash of gold they have struggled for weeks to find?

Series 4: Death Valley

Episode 1 — Rover: The first program in this series focuses on exploration, and the Rough Scientists are pushed to their limits in order to make their skills fit these space-related challenges. Jonathan Hare's challenge is to make a rover — a remote-controlled vehicle which explores strange new worlds. The ultimate test is when the rover is subjected to a NASA-style experiment over rugged terrain. Iain Stewart and Ellen McCallie then have to use their geological and botanical skills to search for water in the scorching hot desert. Once found, Kathy Sykes and Mike Bullivant must purify it and make it safe to drink, an essential part of any space mission.

Episode 2 — Communication: No space mission can succeed without communication, so the second program sets challenges around this theme. In the vacuum of space there is nothing for sound waves to move through, so the scientists have to come up with an alternative form of communicating. Hare and Sykes take on the challenge and come up with a truly extraordinary way to carry the voice on a sunbeam. McCallie and Bullivant have an equally difficult challenge. With no money and just three days, they have to create their own version of a zero-gravity pen. Stewart, meanwhile, has the fun job of establishing a way to communicate with aliens and to tell them exactly what the Rough Science team are doing out in the middle of the desert.

Episode 3 — Spacesuit: In sunlight, the temperature on the moon is 100°C — hot enough to boil the blood in our body. On the dark side, however, it's cold enough to freeze the air in our lungs. The NASA spacesuit not only supplies air, but also regulates temperature, and recreating a similar system forms the main theme of this episode. Humble challenges the Rough Scientists to collectively design a cooling system for their very own spacesuit which will be tested in one of the hottest places on earth — the scorching heat of Death Valley.

Episode 4 — Impact: Fifty thousand years ago, a meteor landed in Arizona with a terrifying impact. In this program, the mile-wide crater is the main focus for two of the scientists. Their challenge is to find out how big the meteor was that created this huge hole on the edge of Death Valley, using just experiment, measurement and calculation. Hare and McCallie, meanwhile, have to measure another crater — this one on the moon. As they will have to conduct all measurements at night, they also have the additional problem of creating some form of light by which they can work.

Episode 5 — Aerial Surveyor: In this episode, Sykes and Hare take the Mars Rover to another level and have to design an aerial surveyor — a device which explores by floating above the land. They are given a tiny camera to record information and they ingeniously attach it to a balloon heated by the sun. Meanwhile, Bullivant is to solve the puzzle that saved the lives of the ill-fated Apollo 13 astronauts. When their oxygen tanks were damaged, they were forced to build a carbon-dioxide filter out of simple bits and pieces, and Bullivant has to replicate this challenge. The task given to McCallie and Stewart is to work out the magnitude and epicenter of the 1872 California earthquake using only their scientific knowledge and basic equipment available.

Episode 6 — Rocket: Just a few miles from historic Edwards Air Force base — where the first space shuttle landed — our Rough Scientists are set their own rocket challenge. They have to make three different types of rocket, all powered by nothing but water. As an added problem, each must have a raw egg as a "passenger," which not only has to survive launch but also be unbroken on its return. Bullivant takes a chemical approach, using electrolysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases and then combines them, forming an explosive mixture. Hare's is powered by steam and Sykes uses pressurized water. The scientists compete to see who can get to the launch pad first and which rocket will be the most effective. Meanwhile McCallie and Stewart have the problem of getting the egg into each rocket and ensuring their safe return to earth.