In Our Time

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Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history of ideas

360 épisodes

19 septembre 2019 - 00:03240
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how, in September 1812, Napoleon captured Moscow and waited a month for the Russians to meet him, to surrender and why, to his dismay, no-one came. Soon his triumph was revealed as a great defeat; winter was coming, supplies were low; he ordered his Grande Armée of six hundred thousand to retreat and, by the time he crossed back over the border, desertion, disease, capture, Cossacks and cold had reduced that to twenty thousand. Napoleon had shown his weakness; his Prussian allies changed sides and, within eighteen months they, the Russians and Austrians had captured Paris and the Emperor was exiled to Elba.WithJanet Hartley Professor Emeritus of International History, LSEMichael Rowe Reader in European History, King’s College LondonAndMichael Rapport Reader in Modern European History, University of GlasgowProducer: Simon Tillotson
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12 septembre 2019 - 00:02584
In the 500th edition of the programme, Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the philosophical idea of free will.Free will - the extent to which we are free to choose our own actions - is one of the most absorbing philosophical problems, debated by almost every great thinker of the last two thousand years. In a universe apparently governed by physical laws, is it possible for individuals to be responsible for their own actions? Or are our lives simply proceeding along preordained paths? Determinism - the doctrine that every event is the inevitable consequence of what goes before - seems to suggest so.Many intellectuals have concluded that free will is logically impossible. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza regarded it as a delusion. Albert Einstein wrote: "Human beings, in their thinking, feeling and acting are not free agents but are as causally bound as the stars in their motion." But in the Enlightenment, philosophers including David Hume found ways in which free will and determinism could be reconciled. Recent scientific developments mean that this debate remains as lively today as it was in the ancient world.With:Simon Blackburn Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy at the University of CambridgeHelen Beebee Professor of Philosophy at the University of BirminghamGalen Strawson Professor of Philosophy at the University of ReadingProducer: Thomas Morris
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5 septembre 2019 - 00:03263
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the context and impact of Pablo Picasso's iconic work, created soon after the bombing on 26th April 1937 that obliterated much of the Basque town of Guernica, and its people. The attack was carried out by warplanes of the German Condor Legion, joined by the Italian air force, on behalf of Franco's Nationalists. At first the Nationalists denied responsibility, blaming their opponents for creating the destruction themselves for propaganda purposes, but the accounts of journalists such as George Steer, and the prominence of Picasso's work, kept the events of that day under close scrutiny. Picasso's painting has gone on to become a symbol warning against the devastation of war.WithMary Vincent Professor of Modern European History at the University of SheffieldGijs van Hensbergen Historian of Spanish Art and Fellow of the LSE Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish StudiesandDacia Viejo Rose Lecturer in Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge Fellow of Selwyn CollegeProducer: Simon Tillotson.
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29 août 2019 - 00:02872
Augustine's Confessions In Our TimeMelvyn Bragg and guests discuss St Augustine of Hippo's account of his conversion to Christianity and his life up to that point. Written c397AD, it has many elements of autobiography with his scrutiny of his earlier life, his long relationship with a concubine, his theft of pears as a child, his work as an orator and his embrace of other philosophies and Manichaeism. Significantly for the development of Christianity, he explores the idea of original sin in the context of his own experience. The work is often seen as an argument for his Roman Catholicism, a less powerful force where he was living in North Africa where another form of Christianity was dominant, Donatism. While Augustine retells many episodes from his own life, the greater strength of his Confessions has come to be seen as his examination of his own emotional development, and the growth of his soul.WithKate Cooper Professor of History at the University of London and Head of History at Royal HollowayMorwenna Ludlow Professor of Christian History and Theology at the University of ExeterandMartin Palmer Visiting Professor in Religion, History and Nature at the University of WinchesterProducer: Simon Tillotson.
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22 août 2019 - 00:02915
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the ideas and life of one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, Emmy Noether. Noether’s Theorem is regarded as one of the most important mathematical theorems, influencing the evolution of modern physics. Born in 1882 in Bavaria, Noether studied mathematics at a time when women were generally denied the chance to pursue academic careers and, to get round objections, she spent four years lecturing under a male colleague’s name. In the 1930s she faced further objections to her teaching, as she was Jewish, and she left for the USA when the Nazis came to power. Her innovative ideas were to become widely recognised and she is now considered to be one of the founders of modern algebra.WithColva Roney Dougal Professor of Pure Mathematics at the University of St AndrewsDavid Berman Professor in Theoretical Physics at Queen Mary, University of LondonElizabeth Mansfield Professor of Mathematics at the University of KentProducer: Simon Tillotson
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15 août 2019 - 00:03091
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.94v95WithLaura Ashe Professor of English Literature at Worcester College, University of OxfordAd Putter Professor of Medieval English Literature at the University of BristolAndSimon Armitage Poet Laureate and Professor of Poetry at the Universities of Leeds and OxfordProducer: Simon Tillotson
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8 août 2019 - 00:03191
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the philosophy of hope. To the ancient Greeks, hope was closer to self-deception, one of the evils left in Pandora's box or jar, in Hesiod's story. In Christian tradition, hope became one of the theological virtues, the desire for divine union and the expectation of receiving it, an action of the will rather than the intellect. To Kant, 'what may I hope' was one of the three basic questions which human reason asks, while Nietzsche echoed Hesiod, arguing that leaving hope in the box was a deception by the gods, reflecting human inability to face the demands of existence. Yet even those critical of hope, like Camus, conceded that life was nearly impossible without it.WithBeatrice Han-Pile Professor of Philosophy at the University of EssexRobert Stern Professor of Philosophy at the University of SheffieldAndJudith Wolfe Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of St AndrewsProducer: Simon Tillotson
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1 août 2019 - 00:03032
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the planet Venus which is both the morning star and the evening star, rotates backwards at walking speed and has a day which is longer than its year. It has long been called Earth’s twin, yet the differences are more striking than the similarities. Once imagined covered with steaming jungles and oceans, we now know the surface of Venus is 450 degrees celsius, and the pressure there is 90 times greater than on Earth, enough to crush an astronaut. The more we learn of it, though, the more we learn of our own planet, such as whether Earth could become more like Venus in some ways, over time.WithCarolin Crawford Public Astronomer at the Institute of Astronomy and Fellow of Emmanuel College, University of CambridgeColin Wilson Senior Research Fellow in Planetary Science at the University of OxfordAndAndrew Coates Professor of Physics at Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College LondonProduced by: Simon Tillotson and Julia Johnson
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25 juillet 2019 - 00:02973
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the works of Wharton (1862-1937) such as The Age of Innocence for which she won the Pulitzer Prize and was the first woman to do so, The House of Mirth, and The Custom of the Country. Her novels explore the world of privileged New Yorkers in the Gilded Age of the late C19th, of which she was part, drawing on her own experiences and written from the perspective of the new century, either side of WW1 . Among her themes, she examined the choices available to women and the extent to which they could ever really be free, even if rich.WithDame Hermione Lee Biographer, former President of Wolfson College, OxfordBridget Bennett Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of LeedsAndLaura Rattray Reader in North American Literature at the University of GlasgowProducer: Simon Tillotson
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18 juillet 2019 - 00:03138
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery in Maryland in 1818 and, once he had escaped, became one of that century's most prominent abolitionists. He was such a good orator, his opponents doubted his story, but he told it in grim detail in 1845 in his book 'Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.' He went on to address huge audiences in Great Britain and Ireland and there some of his supporters paid off his owner, so Douglass could be free in law and not fear recapture. After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, he campaigned for equal rights for African-Americans, arguing against those such as Lincoln who had wanted freed slaves to leave America and found a colony elsewhere. "We were born here," he said, "and here we will remain."WithCeleste-Marie Bernier Professor of Black Studies in the English Department at the University of EdinburghKaren Salt Assistant Professor in Transnational American Studies at the University of NottinghamAndNicholas Guyatt Reader in North American History at the University of CambridgeProducer: Simon Tillotson.
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11 juillet 2019 - 00:03072
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how some bats, dolphins and other animals emit sounds at high frequencies to explore their environments, rather than sight. This was such an unlikely possibility, to natural historians from C18th onwards, that discoveries were met with disbelief even into the C20th; it was assumed that bats found their way in the dark by touch. Not all bats use echolocation, but those that do have a range of frequencies for different purposes and techniques for preventing themselves becoming deafened by their own sounds. Some prey have evolved ways of detecting when bats are emitting high frequencies in their direction, and some fish have adapted to detect the sounds dolphins use to find them.WithKate Jones Professor of Ecology and Biodiversity at University College LondonGareth Jones Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of BristolAndDean Waters Lecturer in the Environment Department at the University of YorkProducer: Simon Tillotson.
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4 juillet 2019 - 00:03204
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936), author of Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba, who mixed the traditions of Andalusia with the avant-garde. He found his first major success with his Gypsy Ballads, although Dali, once his close friend, mocked him for these, accusing Lorca of being too conservative. He preferred performing his poems to publishing them, and his plays marked a revival in Spanish theatre. He was captured and killed by Nationalist forces at the start of the Civil War, his body never recovered, and it's been suggested this was punishment for his politics and for being openly gay. He has since been seen as the most important Spanish playwright and poet of the last century.WithMaria Delgado Professor of Creative Arts at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of LondonFederico Bonaddio Reader in Modern Spanish at King’s College LondonAndSarah Wright Professor of Hispanic Studies and Screen Arts at Royal Holloway, University of LondonProducer: Simon Tillotson
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27 juin 2019 - 00:03242
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the people, plants and animals once living on land now under the North Sea, now called Doggerland after Dogger Bank, inhabited up to c7000BC or roughly 3000 years before the beginnings of Stonehenge. There are traces of this landscape at low tide, such as the tree stumps at Redcar (above); yet more is being learned from diving and seismic surveys which are building a picture of an ideal environment for humans to hunt and gather, with rivers and wooded hills. Rising seas submerged this land as glaciers melted, and the people and animals who lived there moved to higher ground, with the coasts of modern-day Britain on one side and Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and France on the other.WithVince Gaffney Anniversary Professor of Landscape Archaeology at the University of BradfordCarol Cotterill Marine Geoscientist at the British Geological SurveyAndRachel Bynoe Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of SouthamptonProducer: Simon Tillotson
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20 juin 2019 - 00:03242
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss why Athenians decided to send a fast ship to Lesbos in 427BC, rowing through the night to catch one they sent the day before. That earlier ship had instructions to kill all adult men in Mytilene, after their unsuccessul revolt against Athens, as a warning to others. The later ship had orders to save them, as news of their killing would make others fight to the death rather than surrender. Thucydides retells this in his History of the Peloponnesian War as an example of Athenian democracy in action, emphasising the right of Athenians to change their minds in their own interests, even when a demagogue argued they were bound by their first decision.WithAngela Hobbs Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of SheffieldLisa Irene Hau Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of GlasgowAndPaul Cartledge Emeritus AG Leventis Professor of Greek Culture, University of Cambridge and Senior Research Fellow of Clare CollegeProducer: Simon Tillotson
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13 juin 2019 - 00:03169
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how the people of Cusco, in modern Peru, established an empire along the Andes down to the Pacific under their supreme leader Pachacuti. Before him, their control grew slowly from C13th and was at its peak after him when Pizarro arrived with his Conquistadors and captured their empire for Spain in 1533. The image, above, is of Machu Picchu which was built for emperor Pachacuti as an estate in C15th.WithFrank Meddens Visiting Scholar at the University of ReadingHelen Cowie Senior Lecturer in History at the University of YorkAndBill Sillar Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology at University College LondonProducer: Simon Tillotson
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6 juin 2019 - 00:03164
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the range, depth and style of Browne (1605-82) , a medical doctor whose curious mind drew him to explore and confess his own religious views, challenge myths and errors in science and consider how humans respond to the transience of life. His Religio Medici became famous throughout Europe and his openness about his religion, in that work, was noted as rare when others either kept quiet or professed orthodox views. His Pseudodoxia Epidemica challenged popular ideas, whether about the existence of mermaids or if Adam had a navel, and his Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial was a meditation on what matters to humans when handling the dead. In 1923, Virginia Woolf wrote, "Few people love the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, but those that do are the salt of the earth." He also contributed more words to the English language than almost anyone, such as electricity, indigenous, medical, ferocious, carnivorous ambidextrous and migrant.WithClaire Preston Professor of Renaissance Literature at Queen Mary University of LondonJessica Wolfe Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel HillAndKevin Killeen Professor of English at the University of YorkProducer: Simon Tillotson
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30 mai 2019 - 00:03312
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the impact of Grant's presidency on Americans in the years after the Civil War in which he, with Lincoln, had led the Union Army to victory. His predecessor, Andrew Johnson, was prepared to let the Southern States decide for themselves which rights to allow freed slaves; Grant supported equal rights, and he used troops and Enforcement Acts to defeat the Ku klux Klan which was violently suppressing African Americans. In later years Grant was remembered mainly for the corruption scandals under his terms of office, and for his failure to support or protect Native Americans, but in more recent decades his support for reconstruction has prompted a reassessement.WithErik Mathisen Lecturer in US History at the University of KentSusan-Mary Grant Professor of American History at Newcastle UniversityandRobert Cook Professor of American History at the University of SussexProducer: Simon Tillotson
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23 mai 2019 - 00:03098
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how scientists sought to understand the properties of gases and the relationship between pressure and volume, and what that search unlocked. Newton theorised that there were static particles in gases that pushed against each other all the harder when volume decreased, hence the increase in pressure. Those who argued that molecules moved, and hit each other, were discredited until James Maxwell and Ludwig Boltzmann used statistics to support this kinetic theory. Ideas about atoms developed in tandem with this, and it came as a surprise to scientists in C20th that the molecules underpinning the theory actually existed and were not simply thought experiments.The image above is of Ludwig Boltzmann from a lithograph by Rudolf Fenzl, 1898WithSteven Bramwell Professor of Physics at University College LondonIsobel Falconer Reader in History of Mathematics at the University of St AndrewsandTed Forgan Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of BirminghamProducer: Simon Tillotson
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16 mai 2019 - 00:03309
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.WithKaren O'Brien Professor of English Literature at the University of OxfordMichael Rossington Professor of Romantic Literature at Newcastle UniversityAndJane Thomas Professor of Victorian and Early 20th Century Literature at the University of HullProducer: Simon Tillotson
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9 mai 2019 - 00:03080
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) and his ideas about human experience of time passing and how that differs from a scientific measurement of time, set out in his thesis on 'Time and Free Will' in 1889. He became famous in France and abroad for decades, rivalled only by Einstein and, in the years after the Dreyfus Affair, was the first ever Jewish member of the Académie Française. It's thought his work influenced Proust and Woolf, and the Cubists. He died in 1941 from a cold which, reputedly, he caught while queuing to register as a Jew, refusing the Vichy government's offer of exemption.WithKeith Ansell-Pearson Professor of Philosophy at the University of WarwickEmily Thomas Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Durham UniversityAndMark Sinclair Reader in Philosophy at the University of RoehamptonProducer: Simon Tillotson
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