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Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history of ideas
453 Episodes
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Absolute Zero

Absolute Zero

2020-06-0443:072

In a programme first broadcast in 2013, Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss absolute zero, the lowest conceivable temperature. In the early eighteenth century the French physicist Guillaume Amontons suggested that temperature had a lower limit. The subject of low temperature became a fertile field of research in the nineteenth century, and today we know that this limit - known as absolute zero - is approximately minus 273 degrees Celsius. It is impossible to produce a temperature exactly equal to absolute zero, but today scientists have come to within a billionth of a degree. At such low temperatures physicists have discovered a number of strange new phenomena including superfluids, liquids capable of climbing a vertical surface. With: Simon Schaffer Professor of the History of Science at the University of Cambridge Stephen Blundell Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford Nicola Wilkin Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Birmingham Producer: Thomas Morris
Zeno's Paradoxes

Zeno's Paradoxes

2020-05-2847:204

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Zeno of Elea, a pre-Socratic philosopher from c490-430 BC whose paradoxes were described by Bertrand Russell as "immeasurably subtle and profound." The best known argue against motion, such as that of an arrow in flight which is at a series of different points but moving at none of them, or that of Achilles who, despite being the faster runner, will never catch up with a tortoise with a head start. Aristotle and Aquinas engaged with these, as did Russell, yet it is still debatable whether Zeno's Paradoxes have been resolved. With Marcus du Sautoy Professor of Mathematics and Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford Barbara Sattler Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of St Andrews and James Warren Reader in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Cambridge Producer: Simon Tillotson
In a programme first broadcast in 2018, Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the jewels of medieval English poetry. It was written c1400 by an unknown poet and then was left hidden in private collections until the C19th when it emerged. It tells the story of a giant green knight who disrupts Christmas at Camelot, daring Gawain to cut off his head with an axe if he can do the same to Gawain the following year. Much to the surprise of Arthur's court, who were kicking the green head around, the decapitated body reaches for his head and rides off, leaving Gawain to face his promise and his apparently inevitable death the following Christmas. The illustration above is ©British Library Board Cotton MS Nero A.x, article 3, ff.94v95 With Laura Ashe Professor of English Literature at Worcester College, University of Oxford Ad Putter Professor of Medieval English Literature at the University of Bristol And Simon Armitage Poet and Professor of Poetry at the Universities of Leeds and Oxford Producer: Simon Tillotson
Photosynthesis

Photosynthesis

2020-05-1447:439

In a programme first broadcast in 2014, Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss photosynthesis, the process by which green plants and many other organisms use sunlight to synthesise organic molecules. Photosynthesis arose very early in evolutionary history and has been a crucial driver of life on Earth. In addition to providing most of the food consumed by organisms on the planet, it is also responsible for maintaining atmospheric oxygen levels, and is thus almost certainly the most important chemical process ever discovered. With: Nick Lane Reader in Evolutionary Biochemistry at University College London Sandra Knapp Botanist at the Natural History Museum John Allen Professor of Biochemistry at Queen Mary, University of London. Producer: Thomas Morris
John Clare

John Clare

2020-05-0749:293

In a programme first broadcast in 2017, Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Northamptonshire poet John Clare who, according to one of Melvyn's guests Jonathan Bate, was 'the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced'. Clare worked in a tavern, as a gardener and as a farm labourer in the early 19th century and achieved his first literary success with Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery. He was praised for his descriptions of rural England and his childhood there, and his reaction to the changes he saw in the Agricultural Revolution with its enclosures, displacement and altered, disrupted landscape. Despite poor mental health and, from middle age onwards, many years in asylums, John Clare continued to write and he is now seen as one of the great poets of his age. With Sir Jonathan Bate Provost of Worcester College, University of Oxford Mina Gorji Senior Lecturer in the English Faculty and fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge and Simon Kövesi Professor of English Literature at Oxford Brookes University Producer: Simon Tillotson.
Frankenstein

Frankenstein

2020-03-1955:1832

In a programme first broadcast in May 2019, Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Mary Shelley's (1797-1851) Gothic story of a Swiss natural philosopher, Victor Frankenstein, and the creature he makes from parts of cadavers and which he then abandons, horrified by his appearance, and never names. Rejected by all humans who see him, the monster takes his revenge on Frankenstein, killing those dear to him. Shelley started writing Frankenstein when she was 18, prompted by a competition she had with Byron and her husband Percy Shelley to tell a ghost story while they were rained in in the summer of 1816 at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva. The image of Mary Shelley, above, was first exhibited in 1840. With Karen O'Brien Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford Michael Rossington Professor of Romantic Literature at Newcastle University And Jane Thomas Professor of Victorian and Early 20th Century Literature at the University of Hull Producer: Simon Tillotson This programme is a repeat
The Covenanters

The Covenanters

2020-03-1254:0114

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the bonds that Scottish Presbyterians made between themselves and their monarchs in the 16th and 17th Centuries, to maintain their form of worship. These covenants bound James VI of Scotland to support Presbyterians yet when he became James I he was also expected to support episcopacy. That tension came to a head under Charles I who found himself on the losing side of a war with the Covenanters, who later supported Parliament before backing the future Charles II after he had pledged to support them. Once in power, Charles II failed to deliver the religious settlement the Covenanters wanted, and set about repressing them violently. Those who refused to renounce the covenants were persecuted in what became known as The Killing Times, as reflected in the image above. With Roger Mason Professor of Scottish History at the University of St Andrews Laura Stewart Professor of Early Modern British History at the University of York And Scott Spurlock Professor of Scottish and Early Modern Christianities at the University of Glasgow Producer: Simon Tillotson
Paul Dirac

Paul Dirac

2020-03-0550:5814

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the theoretical physicist Dirac (1902-1984), whose achievements far exceed his general fame. To his peers, he was ranked with Einstein and, when he moved to America in his retirement, he was welcomed as if he were Shakespeare. Born in Bristol, he trained as an engineer before developing theories in his twenties that changed the understanding of quantum mechanics, bringing him a Nobel Prize in 1933 which he shared with Erwin Schrödinger. He continued to make deep contributions, bringing abstract maths to physics, beyond predicting anti-particles as he did in his Dirac Equation. With Graham Farmelo Biographer of Dirac and Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge Valerie Gibson Professor of High Energy Physics at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Trinity College And David Berman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Queen Mary University of London Producer: Simon Tillotson
The Evolution of Horses

The Evolution of Horses

2020-02-2750:2220

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the origins of horses, from their dog sized ancestors to their proliferation in the New World until hunted to extinction, their domestication in Asia and their development since. The genetics of the modern horse are the most studied of any animal, after humans, yet it is still uncertain why they only have one toe on each foot when their wider family had more, or whether speed or stamina has been more important in their evolution. What is clear, though, is that when humans first chose to ride horses, as well as eat them, the future of both species changed immeasurably. With Alan Outram Professor of Archaeological Science at the University of Exeter Christine Janis Honorary Professor in Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol and Professor Emerita in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University And John Hutchinson Professor in Evolutionary Biomechanics at the Royal Veterinary College Producer: Simon Tillotson
The Valladolid Debate

The Valladolid Debate

2020-02-2053:1217

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the debate in Valladolid, Spain in 1550, over Spanish rights to enslave the native peoples in the newly conquered lands. Bartolomé de Las Casas (pictured above), the Bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, was trying to end the encomienda system in which those who now owned the land could also take the people in forced labour. Juan Gines Sepulveda, a philosopher, argued for the colonists' property rights over people, asserting that some native Americans were 'natural slaves' as defined by Aristotle. Valladolid became seen as the first open attempt by European colonists to discuss the ethics of slavery, and Las Casas became known as 'Saviour of the Indians' and an advocate for human rights, although for some time he argued that African slaves be imported to do the work in place of the native people, before repenting. With Caroline Dodds Pennock Senior Lecturer in International History at the University of Sheffield John Edwards Faculty Fellow in Spanish at the University of Oxford And Julia McClure Lecturer in Late Medieval and Early Modern Global History at the University of Glasgow Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the great Roman military disaster of 9 AD when Germanic tribes under Arminius ambushed and destroyed three legions under Varus. According to Suetonius, emperor Augustus hit his head against the wall when he heard the news, calling on Varus to give him back his legions. The defeat ended Roman expansion east of the Rhine. Victory changed the development of the Germanic peoples, both in the centuries that followed and in the nineteenth century when Arminius, by then known as Herman, became a rallying point for German nationalism. With Peter Heather Professor of Medieval History at King’s College London Ellen O'Gorman Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Bristol And Matthew Nicholls Fellow and Senior Tutor at St John’s College, Oxford Producer: Simon Tillotson
George Sand

George Sand

2020-02-0655:0513

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the works and life of one of the most popular writers in Europe in C19th, Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (1804-1876) who wrote under the name George Sand. When she wrote her first novel under that name, she referred to herself as a man. This was in Indiana (1832), which had the main character breaking away from her unhappy marriage. It made an immediate impact as it overturned the social conventions of the time and it drew on her own early marriage to an older man, Casimir Dudevant. Once Sand's identity was widely known, her works became extremely popular in French and in translation, particularly her rural novels, outselling Hugo and Balzac in Britain, perhaps buoyed by an interest in her personal life, as well as by her ideas on the rights and education of women and strength of her writing. With Belinda Jack Fellow and Tutor in French at Christ Church, University of Oxford Angela Ryan Senior Lecturer in French at University College Cork And Nigel Harkness Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of French at Newcastle University Producer: Simon Tillotson
Alcuin

Alcuin

2020-01-3056:1414

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Alcuin of York, c735-804AD, who promoted education as a goal in itself, and had a fundamental role in the renaissance at Charlemagne's court. He wrote poetry and many letters, hundreds of which survive and provide insight into his life and times. He was born in or near York and spent most of his life in Northumbria before accepting an invitation to Charlemagne's court in Aachen. To this he brought Anglo-Saxon humanism, encouraging a broad liberal education for itself and the better to understand Christian doctrine. He left to be abbot at Marmoutier, Tours, where the monks were developing the Carolingian script that influenced the Roman typeface. The image above is Alcuin’s portrait, found in a copy of the Bible made at his monastery in Tours during the rule of his successor Abbot Adalhard (834–843). Painted in red on gold leaf, it shows Alcuin with a tonsure and a halo, signifying respect for his memory at the monastery where he had died in 804. His name and rank are spelled out alongside: Alcvinvs abba, ‘Alcuin the abbot’. It is held at the Staatsbibliothek Bamberg -Kaiser-Heinrich-Bibliothek - Msc.Bibl.1,fol.5v (photo by Gerald Raab). With Joanna Story Professor of Early Medieval History at the University of Leicester Andy Orchard Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Pembroke College And Mary Garrison Lecturer in History at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York Producer: Simon Tillotson
Solar Wind

Solar Wind

2020-01-2355:2219

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the flow of particles from the outer region of the Sun which we observe in the Northern and Southern Lights, interacting with Earth's magnetosphere, and in comet tails that stream away from the Sun regardless of their own direction. One way of defining the boundary of the solar system is where the pressure from the solar wind is balanced by that from the region between the stars, the interstellar medium. Its existence was suggested from the C19th and Eugene Parker developed the theory of it in the 1950s and it has been examined and tested by a series of probes in C20th up to today, with more planned. With Andrew Coates Professor of Physics and Deputy Director in charge of the Solar System at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London Helen Mason OBE Reader in Solar Physics at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge, Fellow at St Edmund's College And Tim Horbury Professor of Physics at Imperial College London Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war and the social unrest that followed, as the French capital was cut off from the rest of the country and food was scarce. When the French government surrendered Paris to the Prussians, power gravitated to the National Guard in the city and to radical socialists, and a Commune established in March 1871 with the red flag replacing the trilcoleur. The French government sent in the army and, after bloody fighting, the Communards were defeated by the end of May 1871. The image above is from an engraving of the fire in the Tuileries Palace, May 23, 1871 With Karine Varley Lecturer in French and European History at the University of Strathclyde Robert Gildea Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford And Julia Nicholls Lecturer in French and European Studies at King’s College London Producer: Simon Tillotson
Catullus

Catullus

2020-01-0952:4320

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Catullus (c84-c54 BC) who wrote some of the most sublime poetry in the late Roman Republic, and some of the most obscene. He found a new way to write about love, in poems to the mysterious Lesbia, married and elusive, and he influenced Virgil and Ovid and others, yet his explicit poems were to blight his reputation for a thousand years. Once the one surviving manuscript was discovered in the Middle Ages, though, anecdotally as a plug in a wine butt, he inspired Petrarch and the Elizabethan poets, as he continues to inspire many today. The image above is of Lesbia and her Sparrow, 1860, artist unknown With Gail Trimble Brown Fellow and Tutor in Classics at Trinity College at the University of Oxford Simon Smith Reader in Creative Writing at the University of Kent, poet and translator of Catullus and Maria Wyke Professor of Latin at University College London Producer: Simon Tillotson
Tutankhamun

Tutankhamun

2019-12-2653:3929

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the discovery in 1922 of Tutankhamun's 3000 year old tomb and its impact on the understanding of ancient Egypt, both academic and popular. The riches, such as the death mask above, were spectacular and made the reputation of Howard Carter who led the excavation. And if the astonishing contents of the tomb were not enough, the drama of the find and the control of how it was reported led to a craze for 'King Tut' that has rarely subsided and has enthused and sometimes confused people around the world, seeking to understand the reality of Tutankhamun's life and times. With Elizabeth Frood Associate Professor of Egyptology, Director of the Griffith Institute and Fellow of St Cross at the University of Oxford Christina Riggs Professor of the History of Visual Culture at Durham University and a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford And John Taylor Curator at the Department of Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum Producer: Simon Tillotson
Auden

Auden

2019-12-1953:3312

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and poetry of WH Auden (1907-1973) up to his departure from Europe for the USA in 1939. As well as his personal life, he addressed suffering and confusion, and the moral issues that affected the wider public in the 1930s and tried to unpick what was going wrong in society and to understand those times. He witnessed the rise of totalitarianism in the austerity of that decade, travelling through Germany to Berlin, seeing Spain in the Civil War and China during its wars with Japan, often collaborating with Christopher Isherwood. In his lifetime his work attracted high praise and intense criticism, and has found new audiences in the fifty years since his death, sometimes taking literally what he meant ironically. With Mark Ford Poet and Professor of English at University College London Janet Montefiore Professor Emerita of 20th Century English Literature at the University of Kent And Jeremy Noel-Tod Senior Lecturer in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia Producer: Simon Tillotson
Coffee

Coffee

2019-12-1255:4229

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history and social impact of coffee. From its origins in Ethiopia, coffea arabica spread through the Ottoman Empire before reaching Western Europe where, in the 17th century, coffee houses were becoming established. There, caffeinated customers stayed awake for longer and were more animated, and this helped to spread ideas and influence culture. Coffee became a colonial product, grown by slaves or indentured labour, with coffea robusta replacing arabica where disease had struck, and was traded extensively by the Dutch and French empires; by the 19th century, Brazil had developed into a major coffee producer, meeting demand in the USA that had grown on the waggon trails. With Judith Hawley Professor of 18th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London Markman Ellis Professor of 18th Century Studies at Queen Mary University of London And Jonathan Morris Professor in Modern History at the University of Hertfordshire Producer: Simon Tillotson
Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia

2019-12-0552:1525

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss T.E. Lawrence (1888 – 1935), better known as Lawrence of Arabia, a topic drawn from over 1200 suggestions for our Listener Week 2019. Although Lawrence started as an archaeologist in the Middle East, when World War I broke out he joined the British army and became an intelligence officer. His contact with a prominent Arab leader, Sharif Hussein, made him sympathetic to Hussein’s cause and during the Arab Revolt of 1916 he not only served the British but also the interests of Hussein. After the war he was dismayed by the peace settlement and felt that the British had broken an assurance that Sharif Hussein would lead a new Arab kingdom. Lawrence was made famous by the work of Lowell Thomas, whose film of Lawrence drew huge audiences in 1919, which led to his own book Seven Pillars of Wisdom and David Lean’s 1962 film with Peter O'Toole. In previous Listener Weeks, we've discussed Kafka's The Trial, The Voyages of Captain Cook, Garibaldi and the Risorgimento, Moby Dick and The Thirty Years War. With Hussein Omar Lecturer in Modern Global History at University College Dublin Catriona Pennell Associate Professor of Modern History and Memory Studies at the University of Exeter Neil Faulkner Director of Military History Live and Editor of the magazine Military History Matters Producer: Simon Tillotson
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Comments (48)

Ben Wilson

"does anyone want a coffee...or a green tea?" 😁😂

May 3rd
Reply

Marc Naura

Wow, I nearly didn't recognise the commune here. 72 days and so much achieved or at least started: free equal education, pensions to orphans and widows, democracy, separation of state and church, cooperative organisation in businesses, gendre equality for wages etc! I am surprised by how little this was mentioned considering how much of an impact this had. And Paris was not first in doing communes: Lyon and Paris were first!

Feb 7th
Reply

Granny InSanDiego

And Judiasm and Islam are no better, utterly absurd.

Feb 1st
Reply

Granny InSanDiego

Now we can see how absurd Christianity is. Now we have these evangelical zombies slavishly pushing these doctrines which were invented out of whole cloth by primitive, power hungry men.

Feb 1st
Reply

O • L I V E - health retreat

the reason they bombed Guernica was that it was the Basque "capital" since prehistoric times. the oak was the meeting point for the "Foros" of Euskadi.

Nov 5th
Reply (1)

10 cent plague whereyouwerewhen

opo.o wn nppppp y

Oct 23rd
Reply

Julia Wise

Calling the Irish "the lowest of the low" in the British racial hierarchy seems far-fetched. It's hard to imagine they experienced more discrimination than African or Asian people in Britain at the time.

Aug 18th
Reply (1)

Per Olofsson

You do not have to belong to a certain group to do research on or have an opinion about that group.

Jul 22nd
Reply

Ralph Holtom

So frustrating. What is wrong with BBC podcasts? I listened to the Gordon riots episode without any problem but now this podcast won't play at all. I will have to go to BBC sounds but the point of having a podcast player is to avoid switching between apps

May 9th
Reply

Michael King

Mic quality is poor and some discussion cannot be heard. Otherwise entertaining.

May 8th
Reply

Rich Berry

I was Francis Flute and got very good feedback! I was 17. I loved playing Thisby and your program has brought back some happy memories as well as being insightful. Thank you.

Apr 22nd
Reply

Simon Curry

Great episode.

Mar 9th
Reply

Aliyah s

why is it always Western academics talking about Muslims? it would be really nice if you got someone from the tradition instead of perpetuating this orientalist outlook.

Feb 28th
Reply (8)

Rob Moores

bananas were possibly unknown in England in 1620

Feb 23rd
Reply

Paul Gerald William Mc Closkey

. CD d

Feb 19th
Reply

I like dick up my Bum Hole and

BBC LMAO

Feb 7th
Reply

Cara Hugo Meintjes Hartley

Good episode, but the host could steer them less - as the 'extra' pieces at the end demonstrate, they do quite well without so much interjecting!

Dec 9th
Reply

Wes Stone

such drama in this episode 😂😂

Oct 23rd
Reply

Stephen Burrell

Great podcast

Oct 18th
Reply

Henry Simmons

Melvin mau trppin bragg

Oct 17th
Reply
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