How can equations be beautiful? Graham Farmelo discusses Nobel Prize winner Paul Dirac’s life and achievements.
Paul Dirac rose from a modest background to the pinnacle to modern science.
Farmelo describes it as a bleak upbringing, with a strong emphasis on education and strict disciplinarian as a father.
At Cambridge, engineer turned physicist Dirac began producing “a beautiful vision of quantum mechanics”. Farmelo describes his papers as having “the perfection of Shakespeare sonnet”.
His breakthrough came with the Dirac equation, which combined quantum mechanics with special relativity to understand the behaviour of the electron. For Farmelo “a beautiful unity between two subjects.”
Dirac married his imagination and mathematics to predict the existence of anti-matter, the discovery that later won him the Nobel prize.
Formelo finds great beauty in the perfection of Dirac’s equation. He says an equation has “a power and compactness like great poetry. A great equation is the most highly charged form of mathematical science. It all fits perfectly together like a Rubiks cube; you can’t change it at all.”
On Dirac's gravestone was written: “because God made it so” suggesting sympathy with religion. But Farmelo argues this was his wife’s influence and that although his views softened in later life, Dirac was fiercely against religion.
Dirac’s own religion was simple: “Man can and must improve”. Seeing God’s will at odds with his science, he could not believe in miracles, “because if they happened,it would break the beauty of universal equations.”
First broadcast 22/01/10
Ian McEwan discusses his climate change and his novel Solar
McEwan dismisses the idea that virtuous living will solve climate change. He argues our fuel deficit can only be filled by an alternative energy source.
“Our ingenuity got us into this; it was clever to replace human labour with machines and fossil fuel. Our cleverness will have to get us out.”
Stewart Lee is a writer and stand-up comedian. He has written for radio, television, theatre, newspapers and magazines and performed as a stand-up comedian all over the world. His first novel, The Perfect Fool, was published in July 2001. He is co-author with the composer Richard Thomas of Jerry Springer: The Opera, which was denounced by the good folk of Christian Voice as “crude, offensive and blasphemous in the extreme”.
Anita Sethi discusses how we are all connected and what the internet means for dictatorship and democracy.
Anita maps her ancestry back to Kenya and argues the need to connect is amplified in diaspora communities.
“Migrants have a greater desire for tactile connection; if it was a forced exile or removal many experience the anxiety of loss. You can’t control the way you left so you try to connect, either by mapping your own journey or by retaining a physical representation of origin.”
The internet and social media have exponentially increased the ability to connect. In Kenya, where the majority of the population is under 30, Sethi argues there has been a huge impact in the democratisation of society.
“In a country where it used to take five years to publish a book, the outlet for information and the ability to instantaneously connect is empowering.”
Being able to communicate an idea with such speed is a privilege, but access to information is a right. Sethi argues that dictators use the restriction information as an authoritarian weapon.
“When a regime feels threatened it cuts off means of information."
Closer to home, Sethi finds the growing closures of British libraries worrying.
“Libraries provide wisdom, knowledge and the right to learn for all. The ability to challenge thinking is a human right.”
Lynn Barber, the demon of Fleet Street, talks interviewing; the good, the bad and the bollocks
Barber started her career at Penthouse Magazine, writing about the parameters of sexuality. “It trained me never to be embarrassed and never to show shock or disgust.”
The secret to a good interview, according to Barber, is getting people to talk. “I am genuinely interested in them at the point I am interviewing, I want to understand them”.
But it’s not always plain sailing, the real disasters are never written up and the ones that make the cut are not always perfect.
“If someone else did it better, that’s slightly frustrating, or sometimes every conceivable question has already asked, what more is there to get?”
For Barber, contemporary artists are a favourite but can be difficult to interview. “The reason they are artists is they don’t trust words very much and they express themselves in other ways. To find a way of interviewing that isn't bollocks and has an attachment to reality is a challenge.”
Why do so many American people believe their government is conspiring against them?
In this episode of Little Atoms Kathy Olmsted examines the development of the culture of conspiracy in American society from grassroots to President.
Olmsted identifies World War One and the birth of the modern state as the origin of mass American conspiracy culture.
“As government gets bigger and more powerful and surveillance agencies enforce espionage acts, the American people start to feel the fear of the government as an institution.”
For Olmsted, the state is both the subject and origin of conspiracy theories. She argues that as the government starts watching people, people start to fear they are being watched.
“America starts to believe government is starting to lie cover up and conspire, because it is.”
Conspiracy theories are not confined to the public in American society. Leaders too fall pray to paranoia.
Olmsted argues this is because: “Leaders have access to information; they know that conspiracies exist so come to logical conclusion that more are taking place.”
The culture of transparency perpetuates the notion of conspiracy. The release o information about Northwoods for example, formed the basis of many contemporary conspiracy theories. Many Americans saw it as a template for 9/11.
Omstead explores the irony of democracy and conspiracy from Hoover to Obama to argue that America’s unique contradiction of transparency but lack of accountability serves only to perpetuate conspiracy culture. A culture ingrained in America’s past and present.
First broadcast 10/07/09
Cordelia's latest book, Delusions of Gender: How our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference was short-listed for the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Non-Fiction, the Best Book of Ideas Prize 2011, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize 2010 and the biannual international cross-genre Warwick Prize 2013. Cordelia is a regular contributor to the popular media, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Monthly and New Statesman. She also wrote the introduction for the Britannica Guide to the Brain.
Cordelia studied Experimental Psychology at Oxford University, followed by an M.Phil in Criminology at Cambridge University. She was awarded a Ph.D in Psychology from University College London. Between 2002 to 2011 she held research positions at Monash University, the Australian National University, then Macquarie University.
She is currently an ARC Future Fellow in Psychological Sciences and Associate Professor at the Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne.
Jonathan Meades is a broadcaster and the author of several books including three works of fiction - Filthy English, Pompey and The Fowler Family Business - and several anthologies of which the most recently published is Museum Without Walls, which received 11 nominations as a book of the year in 2012.
Professor Will Alsop is one of Britain’s most renowned architects. He is currently a professor at the Technical University of Vienna.
Aarathi Prasad is a biologist and science writer. She has appeared on TV and radio programmes, including as presenter of Channel 4's controversial ‘Is It Better to Be Mixed Race?' and ‘Brave New World with Stephen Hawking', as well as BBC Radio 4's ‘The Quest for Virgin Birth', and written for Wired, the Guardian, and many other publications. Previously a cancer genetics researcher at Imperial College London, she subsequently moved into the worlds of science communication and policy, in areas including passage of the human-animal chimaera stem-cell bill in the UK Parliament. Aarathi's first book is Like a Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex.
First broadcast on 12th October 2012.
Jon Ronson is a writer and documentary film maker.
He began his journalistic career as an award-winning columnist for Time Out. He also wrote the popular “Human Zoo” column for The Guardian and produced the BBC Radio 4 documentary Hotel Auschwitz. He also presents the late night Radio 4 series, Jon Ronson on…
For Channel 4, Jon has made the acclaimed five part series the Secret Rulers of the World, multi award-winning Tottenham Ayatollah, New Klan, New York to California (A Great British Odyssey), Dr Paisley, I Presume, the four-part series Critical Condition, and the late-night chat show For The Love Of…
For BBC2 he made the six part series The Ronson Mission. Now contributing regularly to The Guardian, Jon has written two books, Them: Adventures with Extremists and The Men Who Stare at Goats.
Adam Macqueen has been a hack at Private Eye magazine on and off for 14 years. He was assistant, deputy and finally acting editor of The Big Issue between 1999 and 2002. He’s on the editorial team of Popbitch.com, and was an associate producer on Adam Curtis’s BBC series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. Adam is the author of various books including The King of Sunlight, and his latest is Private Eye: The First 50 Years.
First broadcast on 18th November 2011.
Cory Doctorow is a science fiction novelist, blogger and technology activist. He is the co-editor of the popular weblog Boing Boing, and a contributor to Wired, The Guardian, Popular Science, the New York Times, and many other newspapers, magazines and websites. A visiting senior lecturer at the Open University, he was formerly Director of European Affairs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation), a non-profit civil liberties group that defends freedom in technology law, policy, standards and treaties. He is currently on the advisory council of the Open Rights Group..
He has won the Locus and Sunburst Awards, and been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and British Science Fiction Awards. His most recent novel was Makers, and his previous novel Little Brother, made it to the New York Times Bestsellers.
Aleks Krotoski is an academic and journalist who writes about and studies technology and interactivity. She is currently a Visiting Fellow in the Media and Communications Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Research Associate at the Oxford Internet Institute. Aleks writes for the Guardian and Observer newspapers, and hosts Tech Weekly, their technology podcast. She presented the Emmy and Bafta-winning BBC 2 series Virtual Revolution, and more recently the BBC Radio 4 series Digital Human. Her first book is Untangling the Web: What the Internet is Doing to You. Also this week, critic Matthew Sweet on the Ealing WW2 propaganda film Went The Day Well?
First broadcast on 7th December 2013.
David Stubbs joined the music magazine Melody Maker in 1986, and worked there for 12 years. His most famous creation, Mr Agreeable periodically reawakens over at The Quietus.
He has also written for The Guardian, NME, The Wire, When Saturday Comes and Uncut, and was a presenter of the Resonance FM football show Café Calcio.
David is the author of numerous books, including Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko but Don’t Get Stockhausen. His latest book is Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany.
Adam Rutherford is a geneticist, writer and broadcaster, whose work includes the award-winning series The Cell (BBC4), The Gene Code (BBC4), Horizon: 'Playing God' (BBC2) as well as numerous programmes for BBC Radio 4 such as the recently launched Inside Science. Previously an editor at the science journal Nature, Adam often writes for the Guardian and has given numerous prestigious lectures, as well as appearing in the 'Uncaged Monkeys' tour. His first book is Creation: The Origin of Life/The Future of Life.
Interview one first broadcast on 16th October 2009.
Interview two first broadcast on 12th July 2013.
Alok Jha is science and environment correspondent at the Guardian. In addition to writing news and comment, he presents the Science Weekly podcast and runs the Guardian's science website. Alok's first book is How to Live Forever and 34 Other Really Interesting Uses of Science.
First broadcast on 11th March 2011.
Andrew Mueller talks to Neil Denny & Padraig Reidy about the 21st Century.
Andrew was born in Wagga Wagga, Australia in 1968, and has lived in London and hotels since 1990. He currently writes on various subjects for the Independent, Independent on Sunday, Guardian, Monocle, Arena, Uncut, High Life, New Humanist and anyone else who’ll have him.
Andrew was previously the author of Rock & Hard Places and a contributing editor of Robert Young Pelton’s The World’s Most Dangerous Places. His latest book is I Wouldn’t Start From Here: The 21st Century and Where it All Went Wrong
According to Little Atoms regular Jonathan Meades, “Mueller is a gung-ho Candide with a taste for places that it is wiser to avoid. His book is graphic comic, bemused and properly contemptuous of faith and ideology” (Books of the Year, Evening Standard).
Image: (C) Andy Vella / Foruli Ltd 2012. All rights reserved.
Graham Farmelo is Senior Research Fellow at the Science Museum, London, and Adjunct Professor of Physics at Northeastern University, Boston, USA. Formerly a theoretical physicist, he is now an international consultant in science communication. He edited the best-selling It Must be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Sciencein 2002. Graham’s latest book is The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius.
George Orwell wrote some of his most renowned essays for the British left-wing publication Tribune between 1940 and 1947, including "Books vs Cigarettes", "You And The Atom Bomb" and the regular "As I Please" column. These works were compiled by Paul Anderson in the book "Orwell in Tribune."
Interview first broadcast on 18th August 2006.
Simon Ardizzone is a freelance editor and filmmaker living and working in the UK. Since graduating from the National Film and Television School in 1995, Simon has worked on over 50 films for English and American broadcasters. Hacking Democracy, his first documentary, co-produced and directed with Russell Michaels, was nominated for Outstanding Investigative Journalism at this year's Emmy Awards. Hacking Democracy which proved that vote-counting computers could reverse the results of an American election, was shown last year by HBO to widespread critical acclaim and has become a tool for election reform activists across the states.
Interview first broadcast on 7th December 2007.
David Aaronovitch, writer, broadcaster and commentator on international politics and the media joins Little Atoms to discuss the role of the conspiracy theory in shaping modern history.
“A very committed conspiracy theorist is as attached to their theories as any significant religious person is to their faith or a political ideologue to a political idea that they really don’t want to give up.”
His book, Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History explores the importance of rationality in the information age.
“The sources of information available to young people today are at a level that we never dreamed of. It will be increasingly important that as the information revolution deepens, to create spaces that have a rationalist kite mark on them - spaces that have a badge of quality on them. I think its going to be one of the big discussions of the next 10 years.”
For Aaronovitch deconstructing conspiracy theories and finding the truth is vitally important.
“It matters because one is true and one isn’t. It matters trying to get at the true versions of history and the true versions of science as far as we can know them. That effort matters.”
First broadcast 29/05/09
Timothy Garton Ash is the author of eight books of political writing or “history of the present”. They include The Magic Lantern, The File, History of the Present and Free World. His latest is Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing From a Decade Without a Name.
He is Professor of European Studies and Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His essays appear regularly in the New York Review of Books and his weekly column for the Guardian is widely syndicated in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Garton Ash has received many awards for his writing, including the Somerset Maugham Award and the George Orwell Prize.
Adam Curtis is a producer, writer and director of television documentaries such as Pandora's Box, The Mayfair Set, The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares and The Trap. Curtis' programs, though always about serious issues, maintain a sense of tongue-in-cheek humor and are characteristic in their extensive use of archive footage. In his film making, Curtis strives to find meaningful connections between historical situations and often focuses on the impact different ideologies have had on modern society. Adam's latest series, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace begins on BBC2 on 23rd May 2011. Adam has been our guest on Little Atoms twice.
Interview one first broadcast on 21st November 2008.