The Curies 26 Mar 15
Duration: 48 mins
The scientific achievements of the Curie family were numerous. In 1903 Marie and Pierre Curie shared a Nobel Prize in Physics with Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity, a term which Marie coined. Marie went on to win a Nobel in Chemistry eight years later; remarkably, her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie would later share a Nobel with her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie for their discovery that it was possible to create radioactive materials in the laboratory. The work of the Curies added immensely to our knowledge of physics and paved the way for modern treatments for cancer and other illnesses. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Patricia Fara, Senior Tutor of Clare College, University of Cambridge; Robert Fox, Emeritus Professor of the History of Science at the University of Oxford and Steven T Bramwell, Professor of Physics and former Professor of Chemistry at University College London.
Dark Matter 12 Mar 15
Duration: 46 mins
Dark matter is the mysterious and invisible substance which is believed to make up most of the Universe.
Beowulf 05 Mar 15
Duration: 47 mins
Beowulf is one of the masterpieces of Anglo-Saxon literature.
The Photon 12 Feb 15
The photon is one of the most enigmatic objects in the Universe.
Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, author of The History of the Peloponnesian War. With Paul Cartledge, Emeritus Professor of Greek Culture and AG Leventis Senior Research Fellow at Clare College, Cambridge; Katherine Harloe, Associate Professor in Classics and Intellectual History at the University of Reading; and Neville Morley, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Bristol.
Duration: 47 mins
Phenomenology is a style of philosophy developed by the German thinker Edmund Husserl in the first decades of the 20th century.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting of 1559, 'The Fight Between Carnival and Lent', was created in Antwerp at a time of religious tension between Catholics and Protestants.
Duration: 43 mins
The question of what exactly truth is has exercised the best philosophical minds since antiquity.
Behavioural ecology is the scientific study of animal behaviour.
Zen is often thought of as a form of Buddhism that emphasises the practice of meditation over any particular set of beliefs.
Duration: 44 mins
In Franz Kafka's novel 'The Trial', readers follow the protagonist Joseph K into a bizarre, nightmarish world in which he stands accused of an unknown crime and there seems to be no escape from a crushing, oppressive bureaucracy.
Aesop, according to some accounts, was a strikingly ugly slave in antiquity who was dumb until granted the power of speech by the goddess Isis.
Duration: 45 mins
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a prominent Victorian engineer responsible for bridges, tunnels and railways still in use today more than 150 years after they were built.
The female pharaoh Hatshepsut ruled Egypt in the early 15th century BC and some scholars argue that she was one of the most successful and influential pharaohs.
Julius Caesar was famously assassinated as he entered the Roman senate on the Ides of March, 44 BC. He was an inspirational general who conquered much of Europe, and a ruthless and canny politician who became dictator of Rome. He also wrote The Gallic Wars, one of the most admired and studied works of Latin literature. Shakespeare is one of many later writers to have been fascinated by the figure of Julius Caesar. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Christopher Pelling, Regius Professor of Greek at the University of Oxford; Catherine Steel, Professor of Classics at the University of Glasgow and Maria Wyke, Professor of Latin at University College London.
Euler's number, also known as e, was first discovered in the 17th century by the Swiss mathematician Jacob Bernoulli when he was studying compound interest. e is now recognised as one of the most important and interesting numbers in mathematics. Roughly equal to 2.718, e is useful in studying many everyday situations, from personal savings to epidemics. It also features in Euler's Identity, sometimes described as the most beautiful equation ever written. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Colva Roney-Dougal, Reader in Pure Mathematics at the University of St Andrews; June Barrow-Green, Senior Lecturer in the History of Maths at the Open University and Vicky Neale, Whitehead Lecturer at the Mathematical Institute and Balliol College at the University of Oxford.
How was the Sun formed, and what do we know about its structure and the processes going on inside our nearest star? With Carolin Crawford, Gresham Professor of Astronomy and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge; Yvonne Elsworth, Professor of Helioseismology at the University of Birmingham; and Louise Harra, Professor of Solar Physics at UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory.
Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway, first published in 1925, charts a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a prosperous member of London society, as she prepares to throw a party. Woolf explained in her diary what she had set out to do: 'I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity. I want to criticize the social system, and to show it at work at its most intense.' Celebrated for its innovative narrative technique and distillation of many of the preoccupations of 1920s Britain, Mrs Dalloway is now seen as a landmark of 20th-century fiction, and one of the finest products of literary modernism. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Professor Dame Hermione Lee, President of Wolfson College, Oxford; Jane Goldman, Reader in English Literature at the University of Glasgow and Kathryn Simpson, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Cardiff Metropolitan University.
Hildegard of Bingen was one of the most remarkable figures of the Middle Ages. The abbess of a Benedictine convent, she experienced a series of mystical visions which she documented in her writings. She was celebrated for her wide-ranging scholarship, which covered theology, science and medicine. Officially recognised as a saint in 2012, Hildegard is also one of the earliest known composers. Since their rediscovery in recent decades her compositions have been widely recorded and performed. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Miri Rubin, Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History and Head of the School of History at Queen Mary, University of London; William Flynn, Lecturer in Medieval Latin at the Institute for Medieval Studies at the University of Leeds and Almut Suerbaum, Professor of Medieval German and Fellow of Somerville College, Oxford.
The state of being alone can arise for many different reasons: imprisonment, exile or personal choice. It can be prompted by religious belief, personal necessity or a philosophical need for solitary contemplation. Many thinkers have dealt with the subject, from Plato and Aristotle to Hannah Arendt. It's a philosophical tradition that takes in medieval religious mystics, the work of Montaigne and Adam Smith, and the great American poets of solitude Thoreau and Emerson. With Melissa Lane, Professor of Politics at Princeton University; Simon Blackburn, Professor of Philosophy at the New College of the Humanities and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge; and John Haldane, Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews.
Robert Boyle was a pioneering scientist and a founder member of the Royal Society. Born in Ireland in 1627, Boyle was one of the first natural philosophers to conduct rigorous experiments, laid the foundations of modern chemistry and derived Boyle's Law, describing the physical properties of gases. In addition to his experimental work he left a substantial body of writings about philosophy and religion; his piety was one of the most important factors in his intellectual activities, prompting a celebrated dispute with his contemporary Thomas Hobbes. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Simon Schaffer, Professor of the History of Science at the University of Cambridge; Michael Hunter, Emeritus Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London and Anna Marie Roos, Senior Lecturer in the History of Science and Medicine at the University of Lincoln.
The Bluestockings were a small group of intellectual women in the 18th century who met regularly to discuss literature and other matters. They invited some of the leading thinkers of the day to take part in their informal salons. In an age when women were not expected to be highly educated, the Bluestockings were sometimes regarded with suspicion or even hostility. But prominent members such as Elizabeth Montagu and the classicist Elizabeth Carter were highly regarded for their scholarship. Their accomplishments led to far greater acceptance of women as the intellectual equal of men, and furthered the cause of female education. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Karen O'Brien, Vice-Principal and Professor of English at King's College London; Elizabeth Eger, Reader in English Literature at King's College London and Nicole Pohl, Reader in English Literature at Oxford Brookes University.
The Talmud is one of the most important texts of Judaism. It was probably written down over a period of several hundred years, beginning in the 2nd century. It contains the authoritative text of the traditional Jewish oral law, and also an account of early Rabbinic discussions of these laws. In later centuries scholars wrote important commentaries on these texts, which remain central to most strands of modern Judaism. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Philip Alexander, Emeritus Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester; Rabbi Norman Solomon, Former Lecturer at the Oxford Centre for Jewish and Hebrew Studies and Laliv Clenman, Lecturer in Rabbinic Literature at Leo Baeck College and a Visiting Lecturer at KCL.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, published in 1859, was a poem by Edward FitzGerald that was based on the verses of the 11th-century Persian scholar Omar Khayyam. Not a single copy was sold in the first few months after the work's publication, but after it came to the notice of members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood it became enormously influential. The Rubaiyat made Khayyam the best-known Eastern poet in the English-speaking world and FitzGerald's version is one of the most admired works of Victorian literature. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Charles Melville, Professor of Persian History at the University of Cambridge; Daniel Karlin, Winterstoke Professor of English Literature at the University of Bristol and Kirstie Blair, Professor of English Studies at the University of Stirling.
Photosynthesis is the process by which plants and many other organisms use sunlight to produce organic molecules. Photosynthesis arose early in evolutionary history and has been a crucial driver of life on Earth. In addition to providing most of the food on the planet, it is also responsible for maintaining atmospheric oxygen levels, and is thus almost certainly the most important chemical process ever discovered. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Nick Lane, Reader in Evolutionary Biochemistry at University College London; Sandra Knapp, Botanist at the Natural History Museum and John Allen, Professor of Biochemistry at Queen Mary, University of London.
The Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45 broke out after several years of rising tension between China and Japan. When the Japanese invaded China they met with fierce resistance, despite internal Chinese political divisions. Once the USA had entered the war following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese found themselves fighting on several fronts and finally capitulated in August 1945. This notoriously brutal conflict left millions dead and had far-reaching consequences for Asia. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at the University of Oxford; Barak Kushner, Senior Lecturer in Japanese History at the University of Cambridge and Tehyun Ma, Lecturer in Chinese History at the University of Exeter.
The Tale of Sinuhe is one of the most celebrated works of ancient Egyptian literature. Written about 4000 years ago, the poem narrates the story of an Egyptian official who is exiled to Syria-Palestine before returning to his homeland many years later. Although the story is set against a backdrop of real historical events, most scholars believe that the poem is a work of fiction. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Richard Parkinson, Professor of Egyptology and Fellow of Queen's College at the University of Oxford; Roland Enmarch, Senior Lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Liverpool and Aidan Dodson, Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol.
Laurence Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy is an extravagantly inventive work which was hugely popular when first published in 1759. Its often bawdy humour and numerous digressions are combined with bold literary experiment, such as a page printed entirely black to mark the death of one of the novel's characters. Two hundred and fifty years after the book's publication, Tristram Shandy remains one of the most influential and widely admired books of the 18th century. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Judith Hawley, Professor of Eighteenth-Century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London; John Mullan, Professor of English at University College London and Mary Newbould, Bowman Supervisor in English at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge.
The Domesday Book of 1086 was a vast survey of much of the land and property of England and Wales. Twenty years after the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror sent officials to gather information about settlements, the people who lived there, their land holdings and even their farm animals. The resulting document was of immense importance for many centuries, and remains a central source for medieval historians. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Stephen Baxter, Reader in Medieval History at Kings College London; Elisabeth van Houts, Honorary Professor of Medieval European History at the University of Cambridge and David Bates, Professorial Fellow in Medieval History at the University of East Anglia.
Strabo's Geographica, written almost 2000 years ago by a Greek scholar, is an ambitious attempt to describe the entire world known to the Romans and Greeks at that time. One of the earliest systematic works of geography, Strabo's book offers a revealing insight into ancient scholarship, and remained influential for many centuries after the author's death. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Paul Cartledge, AG Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge; Maria Pretzler, Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Swansea University and Benet Salway, Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at UCL.
The states in which matter can exist is a fascinating area of scientific enquiry. Most people are familiar with the idea that a substance like water can exist in solid, liquid and gaseous forms. But as much as 99% of the matter in the universe is now believed to exist in a fourth state, plasma. Today scientists recognise a number of other exotic states, such as glass, gels and liquid crystals - many of them with useful properties. Melyvn Bragg is joined by Andrea Sella, Professor of Chemistry at University College London; Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge and Justin Wark, Professor of Physics and Fellow of Trinity College at the University of Oxford.
Duration: 51 mins
Max Weber's book the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published in 1905, proposed that Protestantism had been a significant factor in the emergence of capitalism. He made an explicit connection between religious ideas and economic systems. Weber suggested that Calvinism, with its emphasis on personal asceticism and the merits of hard work, had created an ethic which had enabled the success of capitalism in Protestant countries. Weber's essay has come in for some criticism since he published the work, but it is still seen as one of the seminal texts of 20th-century sociology. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Peter Ghosh, Fellow in History at St Anne's College, Oxford; Sam Whimster, Honorary Professor in Sociology at the University of New South Wales and Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University.
George Berkeley, an Anglican bishop, was one of the most important philosophers of the 18th century. Bishop Berkeley believed that objects only truly exist in the mind of somebody who perceives them - an idea he called immaterialism. His work on the nature of perception was a spur to many later thinkers, including Hume and Kant. The clarity of Berkeley's writing, and his ability to pose a problem in an easily understood form, has made him one of the most admired early modern thinkers. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Peter Millican, Gilbert Ryle Fellow and Professor of Philosophy at Hertford College, Oxford; Tom Stoneham, Professor of Philosophy at the University of York and Michela Massimi, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Science at the University of Edinburgh.
The Trinity, the idea that God is a single entity but one known in three distinct forms (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), has been a central belief for most Christians since the earliest years of the religion. The doctrine was often controversial in the early Church, until clarified by the Council of Nicaea in the late 4th century. St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas recognised that this religious mystery posed profound theological questions. The Trinity's influence on Christian thought and practice is considerable, although it is interpreted in different ways by different Christian traditions. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Janet Soskice, Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Jesus College; Martin Palmer, Director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education, and Culture, and The Reverend Graham Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford and a Canon of Christ Church.
Duration: 42 mins
Spartacus was the famous gladiator who led a major slave rebellion against the Roman Republic in the 1st century BC. An accomplished military leader, he was celebrated by some ancient historians and reviled by others. Later, in the 19th century, he became a hero to revolutionaries in Europe. Modern perceptions of his character have been influenced by Stanley Kubrick's 1960 film, but ancient sources give a more complex picture of Spartacus and the aims of his rebellion. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge; Maria Wyke, Professor of Latin at University College, London and Theresa Urbainczyk, Associate Professor of Classics at University College, Dublin.
The eye has been the subject of research for at least 2500 years. Some ancient philosophers believed that the eye enabled creatures to see by emitting its own light. The function of the eye became an area of particular interest to doctors in the Islamic Golden Age. In Renaissance Europe the work of thinkers including Kepler and Descartes revolutionised thinking about how the organ worked, but it took several hundred years for the eye to be thoroughly understood. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Patricia Fara, Senior Tutor of Clare College, University of Cambridge; William Ayliffe, Gresham Professor of Physic at Gresham College and Robert Iliffe, Professor of Intellectual History and History of Science at the University of Sussex.
Social Darwinism was the idea that Charles Darwin's theory about evolution, as set out in his masterpiece On the Origin of Species in 1859, could also be applied to human society. One thinker particularly associated with this movement was Herbert Spencer, who argued that competition among humans was beneficial, because it ensured that only the healthiest and most intelligent individuals would succeed. Social Darwinism remained influential for several decades, although its connection with eugenics and adoption as an ideological position by Fascist regimes ensured its eventual downfall from intellectual respectability. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Adam Kuper, Centennial Professor of Anthropology at the LSE, University of London; Gregory Radick, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Leeds and Charlotte Sleigh, Reader in the History of Science at the University of Kent.
Chivalry was the moral code observed by knights of the Middle Ages. It originated in the military practices of aristocratic French and German soldiers, but developed into an elaborate system governing many different aspects of knightly behaviour. It influenced the conduct of military campaigns and gave rise to the phenomenon of courtly love, the subject of much romance literature, as well as to the practice of heraldry. The remnants of the chivalric tradition linger in European culture even today. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Miri Rubin, Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History and Head of the School of History at Queen Mary, University of London; Matthew Strickland, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Glasgow and Laura Ashe, Associate Professor in English at the University of Oxford and Fellow of Worcester College.
The Phoenicians were an ancient people from the Levant who were accomplished sailors and traders, and are thought to have taught the Greeks their alphabet. By about 700 BC they were trading all over the Mediterranean, taking Egyptian and Syrian goods as far as Spain and North Africa. Although they left few records of their own, they were hugely influential in the ancient world. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Mark Woolmer, Assistant Principal at Collingwood College, Durham University; Josephine Quinn, Lecturer in Ancient History at the University of Oxford and Cyprian Broodbank, Professor of Mediterranean Archaeology at University College London.
Catastrophism is the idea that natural disasters have had a significant influence in moulding the Earth's geological features. In 1822 William Buckland ascribed most of the fossil record to the effects of Noah's flood. Charles Lyell later challenged these writings, arguing that geological change was slow and gradual, and that the processes responsible could still be seen at work today - a theory known as Uniformitarianism. But in the 1970s the idea that catastrophes were a major factor in the Earth's geology was revived by the discovery of evidence of a giant asteroid impact 65 million years ago, believed by many to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Andrew Scott, Leverhulme Emeritus Fellow in the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London; Jan Zalasiewicz, Senior Lecturer in Geology at the University of Leicester and Leucha Veneer, Visiting Scholar at the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester.
The first records of historical events in China date from the Shang dynasty of the 2nd millennium BC. The earliest surviving records were inscribed on bones or tortoise shells; in later centuries, chroniclers left detailed accounts on paper or silk. In the last 100 years, archaeologists have discovered a wealth of new materials, including a cache of previously unknown texts which were found in a cave on the edge of the Gobi Desert. Such sources are shedding new light on Chinese history, although interpreting them presents a number of challenges. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Roel Sterckx, Joseph Needham Professor of Chinese History at the University of Cambridge; Tim Barrett, Professor of East Asian History at SOAS, University of London and Hilde de Weerdt, Professor of Chinese History at Leiden University.
The Battle of Tours took place in 732 when a large Arab army invaded Gaul from northern Spain. They were defeated near Poitiers by Charles Martel and his Frankish forces. The result confirmed the regional supremacy of Charles, who went on to establish a strong Frankish dynasty. The Battle of Tours was the last major incursion of Muslim armies into northern Europe; some historians, including Edward Gibbon, have seen it as the decisive moment that determined that the continent would remain Christian. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Hugh Kennedy, Professor of Arabic at SOAS, University of London; Rosamond McKitterick, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Cambridge and Matthew Innes, Vice-Master and Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London.
Plato's Symposium is one of the Greek philosopher's most celebrated works. Written in the 4th century BC, it is a dialogue set at a dinner party attended by a number of prominent ancient Athenians, including the philosopher Socrates and the playwright Aristophanes. Each of the guests speaks of Eros, or erotic love. This fictional discussion of the nature of love, how and why it arises and what it means to be in love, has had a significant influence on later thinkers, and is the origin of the modern notion of Platonic love. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Angie Hobbs, Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield; Richard Hunter, Regius Professor of Greek at the University of Cambridge and Frisbee Sheffield, Director of Studies in Philosophy at Christ's College, University of Cambridge.
The Medici family dominated Florence's political and cultural life for three centuries. They came to prominence in Italy in the 15th century as a result of the wealth they built up through banking. With the rise of Cosimo de' Medici, they became Florence's most powerful and influential dynasty, effectively controlling the city's government. Their patronage of the arts turned Florence into a leading centre of the Renaissance and the Medici Bank was one of the most successful institutions of its day. As well as producing four popes, members of the Medici married into various European royal families. Melvyn Bragg is joined by Evelyn Welch, Professor of Renaissance Studies at Kings College, University of London; Robert Black, Professor of Renaissance History at the University of Leeds and Catherine Fletcher, Lecturer in Public History at the University of Sheffield.