Lecture 5 – Luck, games, and stupidity

In the last of his Christmas Lectures, Dr Hugh Montgomery reveals how our intrinsic survival kit – our genes – can also influence how well we fare when faced with life-threatening situations.

On the night of March 24 1944, in the midst of World War II, the plane bearing Flight Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade came under attack from a German aircraft and burst into flames. Preferring to die from the impact of landing rather than stay put and be killed by the fire, Nicholas jumped from his burning plane without a parachute. It was a decision that ultimately saved his life; his fall was softened by the pine forest and snow-covered ground that lay below, and he lived to tell the tale.   

Nicholas survived by chance, but, as Hugh Montgomery reveals, not all cases of survival depend on being in the right place at the right time.

In perilous situations, genes determine how well we respond to risk factors like the cold, pain, smells and infection.  Just a small difference to the DNA in our genes can make a large difference to how we react. But our environment can have a large influence, too. So, just how much of extreme survival is down to nature, and how much is nurture?

To find out Hugh also talks to Uraguayan political figure Roberto Canessa, one of 16 survivors who lived for two months in the Andes mountains after their plane crashed. In his remarkable tale of survival we see why in extreme situations, some people live and some people die. 


Being human


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Hugh Montgomery



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