In Our Time
In Our Time
About In Our Time
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the ideas, people and events that have shaped our world.
Paul Erdős (1913 – 1996) is one of the most celebrated mathematicians of the 20th century. During his long career, he made a number of impressive advances in our understanding of maths and developed whole new fields in the subject. He was born into a Jewish family in Hungary just before the outbreak of World War I, and his life was shaped by the rise of fascism in Europe, anti-Semitism and the Cold War. His reputation for mathematical problem solving is unrivalled and he was extraordinarily prolific. He produced more than 1,500 papers and collaborated with around 500 other academics. He also had an unconventional lifestyle. Instead of having a long-term post at one university, he spent much of his life travelling around visiting other mathematicians, often staying for just a few days. With Colva Roney-Dougal Professor of Pure Mathematics at the University of St Andrews Timothy Gowers Professor of Mathematics at the College de France in Paris and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and Andrew Treglown Associate Professor in Mathematics at the University of Birmingham The image above shows a graph occurring in Ramsey Theory. It was created by Dr Katherine Staden, lecturer in the School of Mathematics at the Open University.
In 1957 Stevie Smith published a poetry collection called Not Waving But Drowning – and its title poem gave us a phrase which has entered the language. Its success has overshadowed her wider work as the author of more than half a dozen collections of poetry and three novels, mostly written while she worked as a secretary. Her poems, printed with her pen and ink sketches, can seem simple and comical, but often beneath the surface lurk themes of melancholy, loneliness, love and death. With Jeremy Noel-Tod Associate Professor in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia Noreen Masud Lecturer in Twentieth Century Literature at the University of Bristol and Will May Professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature at the University of Southampton The photograph above shows Stevie Smith recording her story Sunday at Home, a finalist in the BBC Third Programme Short Story competition in 1949.
On 21 May 1838 an estimated 150,000 people assembled on Glasgow Green for a mass demonstration. There they witnessed the launch of the People’s Charter, a list of demands for political reform. The changes they called for included voting by secret ballot, equal-sized constituencies and, most importantly, that all men should have the vote. The Chartists, as they came to be known, were the first national mass working-class movement. In the decade that followed, they collected six million signatures for their Petitions to Parliament: all were rejected, but their campaign had a significant and lasting impact. With Joan Allen Visiting Fellow in History at Newcastle University and Chair of the Society for the Study of Labour History Emma Griffin Professor of Modern British History at the University of East Anglia and President of the Royal Historical Society and Robert Saunders Reader in Modern British History at Queen Mary, University of London. The image above shows a Chartist mass meeting on Kennington Common in London in April 1848.
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the pioneering Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546 – 1601) whose charts offered an unprecedented level of accuracy. In 1572 Brahe's observations of a new star challenged the idea, inherited from Aristotle, that the heavens were unchanging. He went on to create his own observatory complex on the Danish island of Hven, and there, working before the invention of the telescope, he developed innovative instruments and gathered a team of assistants, taking a highly systematic approach to observation. A second, smaller source of renown was his metal prosthetic nose, which he needed after a serious injury sustained in a duel. The image above shows Brahe aged 40, from the Atlas Major by Johann Blaeu. With Ole Grell Emeritus Professor in Early Modern History at the Open University Adam Mosley Associate Professor of History at Swansea University and Emma Perkins Affiliate Scholar in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge.
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the discovery made in 1911 by the Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes (1853-1926). He came to call it Superconductivity and it is a set of physical properties that nobody predicted and that none, since, have fully explained. When he lowered the temperature of mercury close to absolute zero and ran an electrical current through it, Kamerlingh Onnes found not that it had low resistance but that it had no resistance. Later, in addition, it was noticed that a superconductor expels its magnetic field. In the century or more that has followed, superconductors have already been used to make MRI scanners and to speed particles through the Large Hadron Collider and they may perhaps bring nuclear fusion a little closer (a step that could be world changing). The image above is from a photograph taken by Stephen Blundell of a piece of superconductor levitating above a magnet. With Nigel Hussey Professor of Experimental Condensed Matter Physics at the University of Bristol and Radbout University Suchitra Sebastian Professor of Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge And Stephen Blundell Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford and Fellow of Mansfield College Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss A Theory of Justice by John Rawls (1921 - 2002) which has been called the most influential book in twentieth century political philosophy. It was first published in 1971. Rawls (pictured above) drew on his own experience in WW2 and saw the chance in its aftermath to build a new society, one founded on personal liberty and fair equality of opportunity. While in that just society there could be inequalities, Rawls’ radical idea was that those inequalities must be to the greatest advantage not to the richest but to the worst off. With Fabienne Peter Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick Martin O’Neill Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of York And Jonathan Wolff The Alfred Landecker Professor of Values and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford and Fellow of Wolfson College Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Donne (1573-1631), known now as one of England’s finest poets of love and notable in his own time as an astonishing preacher. He was born a Catholic in a Protestant country and, when he married Anne More without her father's knowledge, Donne lost his job in the government circle and fell into a poverty that only ended once he became a priest in the Church of England. As Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, his sermons were celebrated, perhaps none more than his final one in 1631 when he was plainly in his dying days, as if preaching at his own funeral. The image above is from a miniature in the Royal Collection and was painted in 1616 by Isaac Oliver (1565-1617) With Mary Ann Lund Associate Professor in Renaissance English Literature at the University of Leicester Sue Wiseman Professor of Seventeenth Century Literature at Birkbeck, University of London And Hugh Adlington Professor of English Literature at the University of Birmingham
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the stench from the River Thames in the hot summer of 1858 and how it appalled and terrified Londoners living and working beside it, including those in the new Houses of Parliament which were still under construction. There had been an outbreak of cholera a few years before in which tens of thousands had died, and a popular theory held that foul smells were linked to diseases. The source of the problem was that London's sewage, once carted off to fertilise fields had recently, thanks to the modern flushing systems, started to flow into the river and, thanks to the ebb and flow of the tides, was staying there and warming in the summer sun. The engineer Joseph Bazalgette was given the task to build huge new sewers to intercept the waste, a vast network, so changing the look of London and helping ensure there were no further cholera outbreaks from contaminated water. The image above is from Punch, July 10th 1858 and it has this caption: The 'Silent Highway'-Man. "Your Money or your Life!" With Rosemary Ashton Emeritus Quain Professor of English Language and Literature at University College London Stephen Halliday Author of ‘The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis’ And Paul Dobraszczyk Lecturer at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Jane Austen’s last complete novel, which was published just before Christmas in 1817, five months after her death. It is the story of Anne Elliot, now 27 and (so we are told), losing her bloom, and of her feelings for Captain Wentworth who she was engaged to, 8 years before – an engagement she broke off under pressure from her father and godmother. When Wentworth, by chance, comes back into Anne Elliot's life, he is still angry with her and neither she nor Austen's readers can know whether it is now too late for their thwarted love to have a second chance. The image above is from a 1995 BBC adaptation of the novel, with Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds With Karen O’Brien Vice-Chancellor of Durham University Fiona Stafford Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford And Paddy Bullard Associate Professor of English Literature and Book History at the University of Reading Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Orson Welles' film, released in 1941, which is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, films yet made. Welles plays the lead role of Charles Foster Kane, a newspaper magnate, and Welles directed, produced and co-wrote this story of loneliness at the heart of a megalomaniac. The plot was partly inspired by the life of William Randolph Hearst, who then used the power of his own newspapers to try to suppress the film’s release. It was to take some years before Citizen Kane reached a fuller audience and, from that point, become so celebrated. The image above is of Kane addressing a public meeting while running for Governor. With Stella Bruzzi Professor of Film and Dean of Arts and Humanities at University College London Ian Christie Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck, University of London And John David Rhodes Professor of Film Studies and Visual Culture at the University of Cambridge Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the momentum behind rebellion in Ireland in 1798, the people behind the rebellion and the impact over the next few years and after. Amid wider unrest, the United Irishmen set the rebellion on its way, inspired by the French and American revolutionaries and their pursuit of liberty. When it broke out in May the United Irishmen had an estimated two hundred thousand members, Catholic and Protestant, and the prospect of a French invasion fleet to back them. Crucially for the prospects of success, some of those members were British spies who exposed the plans and the military were largely ready - though not in Wexford where the scale of rebellion was much greater. The fighting was initially fierce and brutal and marked with sectarianism but had largely been suppressed by the time the French arrived in August to declare a short-lived republic. The consequences of the rebellion were to be far reaching, not least in the passing of Acts of Union in 1800. The image above is of Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763 - 1798), prominent member of the United Irishmen With Ian McBride Foster Professor of Irish History at Hertford College, University of Oxford Catriona Kennedy Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of York And Liam Chambers Head of Department and Senior Lecturer in History at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss The Song of the Nibelungs, a twelfth century German epic, full of blood, violence, fantasy and bleakness. It is a foundational work of medieval literature, drawing on the myths of Scandinavia and central Europe. The poem tells of two couples, Siegfried and Kriemhild and Gunther and Brunhilda, whose lives are destroyed by lies and revenge. It was extremely popular in its time, sometimes rewritten with happier endings, and was rediscovered by German Romantics and has since been drawn from selectively by Wagner, Fritz Lang and, infamously, the Nazis looking to support ideas on German heritage. The image above is of Siegfried seeing Kriemhild for the first time, a miniature from the Hundeshagenschen Code manuscript dating from 15th Century. With Sarah Bowden Reader in German and Medieval Studies at King’s College London Mark Chinca Professor of Medieval German and Comparative Literature at the University of Cambridge And Bettina Bildhauer Professor of Modern Languages at the University of St Andrews Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the voyage of HMS Challenger which set out from Portsmouth in 1872 with a mission a to explore the ocean depths around the world and search for new life. The scale of the enterprise was breath taking and, for its ambition, it has since been compared to the Apollo missions. The team onboard found thousands of new species, proved there was life on the deepest seabeds and plumbed the Mariana Trench five miles below the surface. Thanks to telegraphy and mailboats, its vast discoveries were shared around the world even while Challenger was at sea, and they are still being studied today, offering insights into the ever-changing oceans that cover so much of the globe and into the health of our planet. The image above is from the journal of Pelham Aldrich R.N. who served on the Challenger Surveying Expedition from 1872-5. With Erika Jones Curator of Navigation and Oceanography at Royal Museums Greenwich Sam Robinson Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute Research Fellow at the University of Southampton And Giles Miller Principal Curator of Micropalaeontology at the Natural History Museum London Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the speeches that became a byword for fierce attacks on political opponents. It was in the 4th century BC, in Athens, that Demosthenes delivered these speeches against the tyrant Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, when Philip appeared a growing threat to Athens and its allies and Demosthenes feared his fellow citizens were set on appeasement. In what became known as The Philippics, Demosthenes tried to persuade Athenians to act against Macedon before it was too late; eventually he succeeded in stirring them, even if the Macedonians later prevailed. For these speeches prompting resistance, Demosthenes became famous as one of the Athenian democracy’s greatest freedom fighters. Later, in Rome, Cicero's attacks on Mark Antony were styled on Demosthenes and these too became known as Philippics. The image above is painted on the dome of the library of the National Assembly, Paris and is by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863). It depicts Demosthenes haranguing the waves of the sea as a way of strengthening his voice for his speeches. With Paul Cartledge A. G. Leventis Senior Research Fellow at Clare College, University of Cambridge Kathryn Tempest Reader in Latin Literature and Roman History at the University of Roehampton And Jon Hesk Reader in Greek and Classical Studies at the University of St Andrews Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Bauhaus which began in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, as a school for arts and crafts combined, and went on to be famous around the world. Under its first director, Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus moved to Dessau and extended its range to architecture and became associated with a series of white, angular, flat-roofed buildings reproduced from Shanghai to Chicago, aimed for modern living. The school closed after only 14 years while at a third location, Berlin, under pressure from the Nazis, yet its students and teachers continued to spread its ethos in exile, making it even more influential. The image above is of the Bauhaus Building, Dessau, designed by Gropius and built in 1925-6 With Robin Schuldenfrei Tangen Reader in 20th Century Modernism at The Courtauld Institute of Art Alan Powers History Leader at the London School of Architecture And Michael White Professor of the History of Art at the University of York Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the rebellion that broke out in Jamaica on 11th October 1865 when Paul Bogle (1822-65) led a protest march from Stony Gut to the courthouse in nearby Morant Bay. There were many grounds for grievance that day and soon anger turned to bloodshed. Although the British had abolished slavery 30 years before, the plantation owners were still dominant and the conditions for the majority of people on Jamaica were poor. The British governor suppressed this rebellion brutally and soon people in Jamaica lost what right they had to rule themselves. Some in Britain, like Charles Dickens, supported the governor's actions while others, like Charles Darwin, wanted him tried for murder. The image above is from a Jamaican $2 banknote, printed after Paul Bogle became a National Hero in 1969. With Matthew J Smith Professor of History and Director of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery at University College London Diana Paton The William Robertson Professor of History at the University of Edinburgh And Lawrence Goldman Emeritus Fellow in History at St Peter’s College, University of Oxford Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the celebrated British poet of World War One. Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) had published only a handful of poems when he was killed a week before the end of the war, but in later decades he became seen as the essential British war poet. His works such as Anthem for Doomed Youth, Strange Meeting and Dulce et Decorum Est went on to be inseparable from the memory of the war and its futility. However, while Owen is best known for his poetry of the trenches, his letters offer a more nuanced insight into him such as his pride in being an officer in charge of others and in being a soldier who fought alongside his comrades. With Jane Potter Reader in The School of Arts at Oxford Brookes University Fran Brearton Professor of Modern Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast And Guy Cuthbertson Professor of British Literature and Culture at Liverpool Hope University Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the greatest changes in the history of life on Earth. Around 400 million years ago some of our ancestors, the fish, started to become a little more like humans. At the swampy margins between land and water, some fish were turning their fins into limbs, their swim bladders into lungs and developed necks and eventually they became tetrapods, the group to which we and all animals with backbones and limbs belong. After millions of years of this transition, these tetrapod descendants of fish were now ready to leave the water for a new life of walking on land, and with that came an explosion in the diversity of life on Earth. The image above is a representation of Tiktaalik Roseae, a fish with some features of a tetrapod but not one yet, based on a fossil collected in the Canadian Arctic. With Emily Rayfield Professor of Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol Michael Coates Chair and Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago And Steve Brusatte Professor of Palaeontology and Evolution at the University of Edinburgh Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the influential painters at the heart of the French Impressionist movement: Berthe Morisot (1841-1895). The men in her circle could freely paint in busy bars and public spaces, while Morisot captured the domestic world and found new, daring ways to paint quickly in the open air. Her work shows women as they were, to her: informal, unguarded, and not transformed or distorted for the eyes of men. The image above is one of her few self-portraits, though several portraits of her survive by other artists, chiefly her sister Edma and her brother-in-law Edouard Manet. With Tamar Garb Professor of History of Art at University College London Lois Oliver Curator at the Royal Academy and Adjunct Professor of Art History at the American University of Notre Dame London. And Claire Moran Reader in French at Queen's University Belfast Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the military order founded around 1119, twenty years after the Crusaders captured Jerusalem. For almost 200 years the Knights Templar were a notable fighting force and financial power in the Crusader States and Western Europe. Their mission was to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land, and they became extremely wealthy yet, as the crusader grip on Jerusalem slipped, their political fortune declined steeply. They were to be persecuted out of existence, with their last grand master burned at the stake in Paris in 1314, and that sudden end has contributed to the strength of the legends that have grown up around them. With Helen Nicholson Professor of Medieval History at Cardiff University Mike Carr Lecturer in Late Medieval History at the University of Edinburgh And Jonathan Phillips Professor of Crusading History at Royal Holloway, University of London Producer: Simon Tillotson
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