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
“Science is what stops us living in caves”
In this episode Professor Brian Cox takes us back to the beginning of the universe to discuss what the Large Hadron Collider will do for science and what science does for us.
“The further back in time you look the simpler it appears, if you want to understand the building blocks but also the forces that stick them together this is the best way to do it”.
The LHC accelerates protons to 99.999 per cent of the speed of light, around the ring 11,000 times a second.
Cox hopes the LHC will help us understand the fundamental mechanism of how mass was generated.
But more than that, the LHC may answer some unexpected questions. “The universe is full of things we don’t understand, like dark matter. We might discover extra dimensions, or signposts as to why gravity is such a weak force.”
Science receives 0.23 per cent of GDP, roughly £3.5 billion a year. With so many questions to answer, Cox argues that current funding is inadequate.
“We built the modern world, and that’s only from a few people doing a bit of research, because it’s under funded. We spent £800 billion bailing out the financial sector. That’s more money than we spent on physics since Jesus”.
With investment in research and development but also scientific literacy, Cox hopes we will find some of the answers to our questions and predicts that “something beautiful and profound will emerge in the next 20 years”.
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”.
Rebecca Skloot is a science writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Discover, and many other publications. She is the guest editor of The Best American Science Writing 2011, a contributing editor at Popular Science magazine, and has worked as a correspondent for WNYC’s Radiolab and PBS’s Nova ScienceNOW.
Skloot served for eight years on the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle, where she was a vice president and judge for their yearly book awards. She has a B.S. in biological sciences and an MFA in creative nonfiction. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, her debut book, took more than a decade to research and write, and instantly became a New York Times best-seller.
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.
Arthur I Miller is a professor emeritus of history and philosophy of science at University College London. He is the author of several acclaimed books, the most recent of which are Einstein, Picasso, and Empire of the Stars, which was shortlisted for the 2006 Aventis Prize for Science Books. An experienced broadcaster, lecturer and biographer, he is particularly interested in the relationship between science and creativity, and noted for being able to write engagingly about complex social and intellectual dramas, weaving the personal with the scientific to produce page-turners that read like novels. Arthur's latest book is 137: Jung, Pauli and the pursuit of a Scientific Obsession.
First broadcast on 13th August 2010.
Brian Switek is a science writer and research associate at the New Jersey State Museum. He writes the blog Laelaps for Wired Science, and Dinosaur Tracking for Smithsonian. He has been a guest on BBC Radio 4's Material World and written for The Times and the Guardian, as well as the Wall Street Journal and Scientific American. Brian is the author of Written in Stone: The Hidden Secrets of Fossils and the Story of Life on Earth.
First broadcast on 19th August 2011.
Andrew Scull is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Science Studies, University of California, San Diego. He has previously taught at the University of Pennsylvania and at Princeton.
His many publications include Museums of Madness; Social Order/Mental Disorder; The Most Solitary of Afflictions: Madness and Society in Britain, 1700–1900; Masters of Bedlam; Madhouse: A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Modern Medicine; and Madness: A Very Short Introduction.
He has also published numerous articles and reviews in leading journals, including the TLS, The Lancet and Brain. He has held fellowships from (among others) the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies and in 1992–93 he was the president of the Society for the Social History of Medicine. His latest book is Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity.
Daniel Bor is a research fellow at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science and the Department of Informatics at the University of Sussex. Previously he spent more than a decade working as a cognitive neuroscientist in the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge. In this episode of Little Atoms we discuss Daniel's book The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning.
First broadcast on 26th October 2012.
Donna Dickenson is the first woman recipient of the International Spinoza Lens award for her contribution to public debate on ethics. She is emeritus professor of medical ethics and humanities at the University of London, and formerly John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics at the University of Birmingham. Body Shopping is her first popular book on science and medicine.
First broadcast on 21st August 2009.
David Quammen is a recipient of the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the author of several acclaimed natural history titles. His book, The Song of the Dodo, won the BP Natural World Book Prize in 1996. His most recent book is Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.
First broadcast on 8th February 2013.
In this episode of Little Atoms, two novels that blur the boundaries between truth and Fiction.
David Flusfeder was born in New Jersey but grew up in London. He's the author of numerous novels, including, A Film by Spencer Ludwig, The Pagan House, The Gift and Like Plastic, which won the Encore Award 1997. He has taught creative writing at Birkbeck College, Morley College, the Arvon Foundation and Pentonville Prison, and currently does so at the University of Kent. His latest novel is the “medieval road movie” John the Pupil.
Jeff Jackson holds an MFA from NYU and is the recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Five of his plays have been produced by the Obie Award-winning Collapsable Giraffe Company. His debut novel is Mira Corpora.
First broadcast on 12th November 2014
Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at University of Kent, and author of a number of books including Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear. During the past decade his intellectual work has been devoted towards clarifying the meaning of humanism for the twenty-first century. In Politics of Fear he argues that the politics of fear thrives in an atmosphere where the exercise of human agency is regarded with suspicion if not dread – and that the alternative to this culture of misanthropy is to set about humanising our existence. To further this aim Frank has recently initiated The Manifesto Club with a group of friends and like-minded colleagues, whose stated aim is to humanise humanism, and to reclaim the creative spirit of the Enlightenment for the twenty-first century.
Neil Denny conducted a series of "Fireside Chats" with some of the many speakers at the FutureEverything conference in Manchester on 31st March and 1st April 2014.
Alex Fleetwood is the founder and director of Hide&Seek, a game design studio dedicated to inventing new kinds of play. Hide&Seek started life in 2007 as a festival of social games and playful experiences on London's South Bank, and built into a studio occupied a unique position in the UK, creating innovative games, installations and events with organisations including Film4, the Cultural Olympiad, Tate Modern, Warner Bros, Gâité Lyrique, Nike, Sony, the Royal Opera House and Kensington Palace.
Anab Jain was born and educated in India (NID), with an MA in Interaction Design from the Royal College of Art, and founded Superflux in 2009, leading the Consultancy's client partnerships whilst balancing the Lab's self-initiated conceptual projects. She has lead multidisciplinary design, strategy and foresight projects for businesses, think-tanks and research organisations such as Sony, BBC, Nokia, NHS, Design Council, Forum for the Future, Qatar Foundation and Govt. of UAE. Honoured as a TED Fellow, she is the receipient of several awards, including the Award of Excellence ICSID and Apply Computers, Innovation Award, Chicago International Film Festival and the UNESCO Digital Arts Award. Her work has been exhibited at MoMA New York, Apple, Mattel Toys, Tate Modern, Science Gallery Dublin, National Museum of China and the London Design Festival. She is on the Board of MzTek and Broadway Cinema and Media Centre, and is a guest lecturer at the Royal College of Art, VCUQatar, Architectural Association, Goldsmiths, Dundee Innovative Product Design and CIID.
Ted Vallance is a Reader in Early Modern History at Roehampton University. After reading History at Balliol College, Oxford, he was DeVelling Willis Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield. He writes a historical blog, and is a regular contributor to the New Statesman and BBC History Magazine. Ted's books include The Glorious Revolution, and most recently, A Radical History of Britain.
After qualifying from medical school in Edinburgh, Gavin Francis spent ten years travelling, visiting all seven continents. He has worked in Africa and India, made several trips to the Arctic, and crossed Eurasia and Australasia by motorcycle. His first book, True North: Travels in Arctic Europe was published in 2008. He has lectured at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, the Edinburgh Book Festival, and is a regular speaker at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. Gavin's latest book, which was shortlisted for the 2013 RSL Ondaatje prize, is Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence and Emperor Penguins.
First broadcast on 28th June 2013.
Henry Nicholls is a freelance science journalist writing regularly for Nature, New Scientist and BBC Focus as well as the broadsheets. His first book Lonesome George told the story of the last giant tortoise of Pinta in the Galapagos and was shortlisted for the 2007 Royal Society General Book Prize. Henry's latest book is The Way of The Panda: The Curious History of China's Political Animal.
First broadcast on 25th February 2011.
Ian Sinclair is a British writer, documentarist, film maker, poet, flaneur, psychogeographer, metropolitan prophet and urban shaman, keeper of lost cultures and futurologist. His books include Downriver, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, Lights Out for the Territory, Dining on Stones, London Orbital, and most recently, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire. He is the editor of London: City of Disappearances. He lives in Hackney.
Christopher Hitchens is a British born, but recently naturalised American Author, Journalist, Essayist and Literary Critic. Based in Washington D.C., Christopher is currently a writer for Vanity Fair and Slate, and an (acrimoniously) ex-writer for The Nation.
Christopher's books include Blood, Class and Empire, Letters to a Young Contrarian, Orwell's Victory, The Missionary Position, No One Left to Lie To and The Trial of Henry Kissinger. His collected Literary essays can be found in Unacknowledged Legislation, and collected political essays in For the Sake of Argument and Love, Poverty and War. Christopher's most recently published book is God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
Christopher describes himself as an Anti-Theist, rather than an Atheist, and he was an outspoken supporter of the removal of Saddam Hussein, a position which has alienated him from a large number of his former Comrades on the Left.
Evgeny Morozov is the author of The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World. He is a contributing editor to Foreign Policy and runs the magazine's "Net Effect" blog about the Internet's impact on global politics. Morozov is currently a visiting scholar at Stanford University and a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation. He was formerly a Yahoo! fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University and a fellow at George Soros's Open Society Institute, where he remains on the board of the Information Program.
Morozov's writings have appeared in The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, Times Literary Supplement, Le Monde, Dissent and many other publications.
Irving Finkel is an archaeologist and Assyriologist, currently Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian Script, Languages and Cultures in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum. He's also an expert on the history of board games, and the founder of the Great Diary Project. Irving is the author of numerous books, most recently The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood. Also on this week's show, astrophysicist Lucianne Walkowicz on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Temple of Dendur.
First broadcast on 19th April 2014.
Ian Sample is an award-winning science correspondent at the Guardian. He was named investigative journalist of the year in 2005 by the Association of British Science Writers. He was previously a feature writer for New Scientist and holds a PhD in biomedical science from Queen Mary, University of London. Ian's first book is Massive: The Hunt for the God Particle.
First broadcast on 6th August 2010.
Howard Jacobson is a writer of both non-fiction and novels, and a journalist, with a regular column in The Independent. he has described himself as "a Jewish Jane Austen," and is often described as "A British Phillip Roth" by others. Howard's novels include Coming From Behind, No More Mister Nice Guy and The Mighty Walzer. His most recent novel is Kalooki Nights, which he described as "the most Jewish novel that has ever been written by anybody, anywhere." Two of Howard's non-fiction books, Roots Schmoots and Seriously Funny, have been made into television series.
Jennifer Potter is a horticultural historian who writes about the history and culture of plants, plantsmen and gardens. The author of four novels and five works of non-fiction, including Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants, and The Rose: A True History, and a regular reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, she is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at King's College London. Her latest book is Seven Flowers and How They Shaped Our World. Also this week, writer and critic Andrew Mueller recommends we listen to Southern Rock Opera by Drive-By Truckers.
First broadcast on 21st December 2013.
Joanne Baker studied Physics at the University of Cambridge and took her PhD in Astrophysics at the University of Sydney in 1995. She is the author of the best selling 50 Physics Ideas You Really Need to Know and is an editor at Nature magazine, where her speciality is space and Earth science. Her latest book is 50 Universe Ideas You Really Need to Know.
First broadcast on 18th February 2011.
John Lanchester is a journalist and novelist, and was winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award for his debut The Debt to Pleasure. He is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books and The New Yorker, and a restaurant critic for the Guardian. He also writes a monthly column form Esquire. John's article on our love affair with the City “Cityphilia” generated much response on its publication in January 2008, and indeed predicted a worldwide crash based on the misuse of financial derivatives. In October 2008 he charted the financial crisis as it had developed over the year in “Citiphobia”. This then led to a book: Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay.
First broadcast on 15th April 2011.
Jim Al-Khalili OBE is a theoretical physicist, author and broadcaster. He is currently Professor of Physics at the University of Surrey, where he also holds the first Surrey chair in the public engagement in science. He was awarded the Royal Society Michael Faraday Prize for science communication in 2007, elected Honorary Fellow of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and has also received the Institute of Physic's Public Awareness of Physics Award.
Jim is the author of numerous popular science titles, including Black Holes, Wormholes and Time Machines, Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed and the book we talk about in this interview, Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science.
Julie Burchill has been writing her often controversial journalism for almost 30 years, for publications as diverse as The NME, The Spectator, Daily Mail, The Times, The Express and The Guardian. She was also founding editor of The Modern Review. Julie's colourful private and social life has generated almost as many column inches over the years. She has written numerous novels, one of which Sugar Rush, has been adapted for television by Channel Four. Julie has also made a number of documentaries for Sky.
Sara Lawrence is a journalist who has worked for The Mail and The Times. She has recently secured a lucrative deal to write novels for teenagers Sara and Julie are currently collaborating on a play for the BBC's groundbreaking Decades series.
Chas Newkey-Burden is a journalist and the author of a number of books including Great Email Disasters and Amy Winehouse: She Told Us She Was Trouble. Julie and Chas have co-written a book, Not In My Name: A Compendium Of Modern Hypocrisy, published by Virgin on 7th August 2008.
Interview With Julie Burchill and Sara Lawrence first broadcast on 24th November 2006.
Interview With Julie Burchill and Chas Newkey-Burden first broadcast on 15th August 2008.
Marc Abrahams is editor and co-founder of the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research and its website Improbable.com.
He is the founder and master of ceremonies of the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, honouring achievements that make people LAUGH, and then THINK. The Prizes are handed out by genuine Nobel Laureates at a gala ceremony held each October at Harvard University and broadcast on National Public Radio and on the Internet.
Marc writes a weekly column for the Guardian, and is the author of numerous books about the Ig Nobel awards and improbable research.
First broadcast on 24th June 2011.
Maria Konnikova was born in Moscow and grew up in the United States. She writes the weekly Literally Psyched column for Scientific American, and formerly wrote the popular psychology blog Artful Choice for Big Think. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where she studied psychology, creative writing, and government. She also holds an MPhil in psychology and an MA in political science from Columbia, where she is currently studying for a doctorate in psychology. Maria Konnikova's first book is Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.
First broadcast on 1st February 2013.