Posted by Adrian under Meta
Welcome to everyone who’s coming here from Radio 4 Feedback! While this site might not be as up to date as I might like, there’s still a lot to look back over on the blog, forums and wiki. I’m aiming to make some new entries on programmes such as the Black Death, and more importantly, if you are interested in contributing to this blog or helping out in any other way, please leave a comment on this post!
Posted by Adrian under Science
Despite having a background in science, I generally don’t look forward to the occasions when In Our Time covers scientific topics. There are two reasons for this – firstly, if it’s a subject that I’m interested in, I probably won’t learn anything new since I’ll have read about it elsewhere. Secondly, and more importantly, the contributors for scientific subjects are just not quite as good at explaining themselves as those for other subjects. I don’t know why this is the case, but it’s something I’ve definitely observed.
Antimatter (audio stream/wiki) is potentially a very tricky, very dry topic. It’s not something like evolution, where you can get a good argument going between Dawkins and someone else about punctuated equilibrium – it’s pure science, where the concepts are foreign and abstract. I wouldn’t have blamed anyone if In Our Time stumbled here.
To my delight, this was one of the clearest and most comprehensible science editions I’ve ever listened to. Val Gibson provided an exceptionally good introduction into the nature of matter and antimatter, and Frank Close and Ruth Gregory were equally skilled speakers. I suppose they may have covered this ground many times in lectures and elsewhere, which would explain the smoothness of their explanations, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
A good example comes about five minutes in, when Frank Close talks about Dirac’s equation that predicted the existence of antimatter. Equations are tricky – on the one hand, scientists don’t want to get bogged down in the details, but on the other, if you simplify it too much, you aren’t explaining anything at all. Here’s how he handles it: Read the rest of this entry »
Posted by Adrian under History, Philosophy
The 2007 series of In Our Time kicked off last week with a safe, reliable topic – Socrates (audio stream/wiki). Experienced contributors, a reinvigorated Melvyn and a subject that I have a vague feeling has already been covered – what could go wrong?
Nothing, as it turned out. This was a very pleasant yet oddly unremarkable edition. Possibly this is because I’ve already read up on basic philosophy (try The Dream of Reason by Anthony Gottlieb – it’s an excellent starter) but it was nevertheless an interesting refresher.
Some choice quotations on non-violence that stuck with me:
Angie Hobbs: This is [Socrates’] big move: he says, we all agree that we want happiness – the ‘flourishing life’ and what I’m telling you is that you’re not going to get the flourishing life unless you live virtuously because otherwise you’re going to be harming yourself more than the other people you hurt, because you will harm your own soul. You can only hurt other people’s bodies or their possessions; only the agent can harm his or her own soul. That was the controversial claim.
David Sedley: In fact what Angie’s talking about is one of Socrate’s most distinctive doctrines … that it’s never, in any circumstances, right to harm another person. You should not return wrong for wrong, you should not return harm for harm. This rejection of retaliation, he makes it quite clear, is a rejection of a whole moral tradition.
Posted by Adrian under About The Show, History, Meta, Religion
It was a slog, but I got there in the end – all existing transcripts of In Our Time have now been added to the wiki. We managed to automate quite a lot of the process, but I still had to do an awful lot of manual editing, during which I saw thousands of intriguing facts and anecdotes. It’s a shame that these ‘lost editions’ (and most of them really aren’t on the In Our Time website) don’t have any recordings available, but the transcripts are the next best thing.
It’s a shame, because they sound utterly fascinating. Right now, I can only guess as to what Mathematics and Storytelling is about, but if the guests are as interesting as the title, it’ll be a great read. As for Cyberspace, which has the following guests:
…the Rev Dr John Polkinghorne, a distinguished scientist, as well as being an ordained priest, a fellow of Queens College Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Liverpool, he’s spent his scientific career as a theoretical physicist, looking at elementary particles. For him, religion and science are united in their quest for ultimate truth in the universe, and Margaret Wertheim is fascinated alike by religion and science, author of the critically acclaimed, “Pythagoras’s Trousers”, which looked at religions intimate historical connection with physics, today she publishes her latest book, “The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace:A History of Space from Dante to the Internet”.
it wins the ‘Most Categories’ award from me, belonging to Science, Religion and Philosophy. There’s an argument to put it in History and Culture as well, if only to give it the quintuple, but I decided to err on the side of caution for this one.
I suppose it’s inevitable for a programme that’s been on the air as long as it has, but I noticed that In Our Time has covered the same ground a few different times: there are multiple editions about the Brain, Memory, Psychoanalysis, and Consciousness. Sometimes they concern different topics inside the same subject, but sometimes they appear to be about exactly the same things, just with different guests. Very odd.
Another interesting fact is that the first sixty or seventy editions – about two years worth – had only two guests, not three. On the balance, I think three is better; two risks the guests taking up adversarial positions, and also reduces the quality of the anecdotes (having two people waiting to speak inside of one means double the time to think of interesting stuff to say!).
Finally, something completely unrelated to the transcripts: I was listening to The Schism (audio stream/wiki) and discovered that the Eastern Orthodox Church is essentially descended from the Greeks, and for much of the first millennium they looked down on the Roman Catholic Church as being uncultured and inferior; sure, they might not have St. Peter, but they certainly had the language that the Bible was written in!
Given the central place that Rome and the Catholic Church occupies in Christianity now, and indeed for the past thousand years, it was a real surprise to learn that it used to be otherwise.
Posted by Adrian under About The Show, Meta
Anyone’s who’s had to transcribe speech will know how difficult and exacting it can be. Now imagine transcribing an edition of In Our Time, with rapid talking, occasional mumbles, similar-sounding speakers and frequent interruptions. I was recently pointed to Lee Borrell’s website, which has almost fifty transcribed editions of In Our Time. What’s even better is the fact that I had absolutely no idea that these editions even existed; they aren’t shown on the Radio 4 In Our Time website, and I can’t find any mention of them anywhere else on the web.
These ‘lost editions’ include topics such as Science and Religion, Childhood, Consciousness, The End of History and Quantum Gravity, and they’re discussed by guests including Nobel prizewinner Amartya Sen and the sadly deceased Stephen Jay Gould. The term ‘treasure trove’ is bandied around quite casually these days, but for anyone who enjoys In Our Time, these transcripts are very valuable.
With the invaluable help of Ben Burry, I’ve cleaned up and reformatted the transcripts for the After Our Time wiki. So far, eleven transcripts are online, with more going up over the next few weeks. I hope you like them!
Posted by Adrian under Culture
You could tell that The Trial of Madame Bovary (audio stream/wiki) was the last edition of the 2006-2007 series when it began with a truly awful joke:
Andy Martin: If Flaubert were pitching this story as a movie today, he would have to summarise the story as something like: one wedding, a couple of adulterers – liaisons, and a funeral.
It was so awful, I didn’t even realise it was a joke until five minutes later. So let’s say that I didn’t have high hopes for this edition. Things got even worse when Melvyn got into an argument (somewhat justifiably) with Andy about whether the book was any good or not, and proceeded to shut down his digression into his theory that there are two different sorts of readers and that reading great literature won’t always be good for you – which sounded quite intriguing, but I suppose there’s only so much time to spend. At this point, Melvyn is clearly looking forward to a well-deserved holiday in the nice, flooded countryside.
I’m a scientist at heart, and I have to admit that I sometimes skip over the ‘culture’ editions of In Our Time. To be honest, I didn’t find the discussion of Flaubert’s style of writing at the beginning of the programme to be interesting at all; perhaps if I’d read the book, I’d feel differently. In any case, I was more drawn to Robert Gildea’s description of France as the ‘second empire’:
The second empire is a sort of hybrid regime. It was a monarchy, but based on the idea of popular sovereignty and when the empire was declared, it was put to a popular vote. It was one of those attempts that you get in the 19th century to reconcile the revolutionary tradition with the counter-revolutionary tradition… it was a regime which had a different birth…
One of the big problems with the empire was liberty. Although Napoleon III said that he was a friend of liberty and ultimately would allow liberty to flourish, there was a sense that France had to go through a period of dictatorship, of constraint, that the politicans had to be gagged or disciplined, and that eventually there would be greater liberty – but not for the moment.
What I found most surprising was the notion that in the mid 19th century, marriage was ‘less about love than about property’. I suppose this was the case in most countries (and continues to be the case in many, even now) but, well… you think France, you think romance. So much for that. Read the rest of this entry »
Posted by Adrian under History
In an old edition from May 2003 about the Jacobite Rebellion (audio stream/wiki), when Bonnie Prince Charlie came from France to Scotland and attempted to put himself – a Stuart – back on the throne, there was an interesting discussion about his strategy. Prince Charlie and the Jacobites had made it down as far as Derby without much trouble, and were faced with a tough decision: should they make a risky march to London where they could win the prize of the capital, or should they play it safe and to Scotland to resupply?
Many things weighed into their ultimate decision, such as misinformation about the number of armies that might intercept them, the availability of French troops and the coming winter. These are all well known – but there was another factor that is little known and rather fascinating to hear about…
Allan Macinnes: There’s also one other factor, believe it or not, that comes into this. Both in the Fifteen but also in the Forty-Five there was a major outbreak of cattle disease in the south of England. If you look at the local press, there’s a conviction that this cattle disease can also spread to humans. Now, if you’ve also got a lot of Highlanders coming down – and their whole trade is based on cattle, so they reach Derby – and it’s almost the limits of the cattle disease. You can find (laughter) – seriously, you can find whole areas in Essex saying the French could be bringing with them foot and mouth or something! So there is a cattle –
Bragg: Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Foot and Mouth Disease?
Murray Pittock: Bioweapons!
Allan Macinnes: (Laughing) There is this issue that comes in the press, a serious issue, of the cattle disease that’s affecting decisions.
This is the reason why I love In Our Time – you get to hear some of the more unlikely but colourful details of our history that would never appear in textbooks (or the web, for that matter – I couldn’t find anything about this on Google).
Posted by Adrian under About The Show, Meta
When I first began listening to In Our Time two years ago, the only times I’d ever tuned in to Radio 4 were by accident. In fact, I didn’t even own a radio, so when someone recommended the programme to me, I had to subscribe to the podcast. This suited me fine; at the time, I was travelling back and forth from London to Oxford every week, so this meant I’d have something to listen to on the coach.
I’d watched and listened to interdisciplinary programmes before, and I hadn’t liked them. Most producers had an aversion to letting people talk continuously for more than one minute (at most!), and if the programme was on TV, a good chunk of time would be spent on pretty but uninformative visuals. Panel discussions were more like confrontations, and often treated more as entertainment rather than anything else. I was skeptical that, when it came to learning about a new subject, it was possible for anything to beat reading a book.
In Our Time genuinely surprised me. The very simple idea of bringing in three guests to talk about a single subject for 40 minutes in a live recorded programme seems rife with danger. How do you keep the guests on topics? How do you make sure you cover everything in time? What if a guest turns out to be a lemon? And yet In Our Time managed, fairly consistently, to provide excellent introductions into subjects as varied as Merlin, Human Evolution and the History of Hell. I quickly became addicted to the show and would happily relate anecdotes and facts I’d heard to friends. Read the rest of this entry »