In Our Time

In Our Time

United Kingdom

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history of ideas

Episodes

Kant's Categorical Imperative  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how, in the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) sought to define the difference between right and wrong by applying reason, looking at the intention behind actions rather than at consequences. He was inspired to find moral laws by natural philosophers such as Newton and Leibniz, who had used reason rather than emotion to analyse the world around them and had identified laws of nature. Kant argued that when someone was doing the right thing, that person was doing what was the universal law for everyone, a formulation that has been influential on moral philosophy ever since and is known as the Categorical Imperative. Arguably even more influential was one of his reformulations, echoed in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which he asserted that humanity has a value of an entirely different kind from that placed on commodities. Kant argued that simply existing as a human being was valuable in itself, so that every human owed moral responsibilities to other humans and was owed responsibilities in turn. With Alison Hills Professor of Philosophy at St John's College, Oxford David Oderberg Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading and John Callanan Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at King's College, London Producer: Simon Tillotson.

al-Biruni  

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Central Asian polymath al-Biruni and his eleventh-century book the India.Born in around 973 in the central Asian region of Chorasmia, al-Biruni became an itinerant scholar of immense learning, a master of mathematics, medicine, astronomy and many languages. He corresponded with the age's greatest scientist, Avicenna, and made significant contributions to many fields of knowledge.In 1017 al-Biruni became a member of the court of the ruler Mahmud of Ghazna. Over the course of the next thirteen years he wrote the India, a comprehensive account of Hindu culture which was the first book about India by a Muslim scholar. It contains detailed information about Hindu religion, science and everyday life which have caused some to call it the first work of anthropology.With:James MontgomeryProfessor of Classical Arabic at the University of CambridgeHugh KennedyProfessor of Arabic in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of LondonAmira BennisonSenior Lecturer in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of CambridgeProducer: Thomas Morris.

Bird Migration  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss why some birds migrate and others do not, how they select their destinations and how they navigate the great distances, often over oceans. For millennia, humans set their calendars to birds' annual arrivals, and speculated about what happened when they departed, perhaps moving deep under water, or turning into fish or shellfish, or hibernating while clinging to trees upside down. Ideas about migration developed in C19th when, in Germany, a stork was noticed with an African spear in its neck, indicating where it had been over the winter and how far it had flown. Today there are many ideas about how birds use their senses of sight and smell, and magnetic fields, to find their way, and about why and how birds choose their destinations and many questions. Why do some scatter and some flock together, how much is instinctive and how much is learned, and how far do the benefits the migrating birds gain outweigh the risks they face? With Barbara Helm Reader at the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine at the University of Glasgow Tim Guilford Professor of Animal Behaviour and Tutorial Fellow of Zoology at Merton College, Oxford and Richard Holland Senior Lecturer in Animal Cognition at Bangor University Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Plato's Republic  

Is it always better to be just than unjust? That is the central question of Plato's Republic, discussed here by Melvyn Bragg and guests. Writing in c380BC, Plato applied this question both to the individual and the city-state, considering earlier and current forms of government in Athens and potential forms, in which the ideal city might be ruled by philosophers. The Republic is arguably Plato's best known and greatest work, a dialogue between Socrates and his companions, featuring the allegory of the cave and ideas about immortality of the soul, the value of poetry to society, and democracy's vulnerability to a clever demagogue seeking tyranny. With Angie Hobbs Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield MM McCabe Professor of Ancient Philosophy Emerita at King's College London and James Warren Fellow of Corpus Christi College and a Reader in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Cambridge Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Eugene Onegin  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Alexander Pushkin's verse novel, the story of Eugene Onegin, widely regarded as his masterpiece. Pushkin (pictured above) began this in 1823 and worked on it over the next ten years, while moving around Russia, developing the central character of a figure all too typical of his age, the so-called superfluous man. Onegin is cynical, disillusioned and detached, his best friend Lensky is a romantic poet and Tatyana, whose love for Onegin is not returned until too late, is described as a poetic ideal of a Russian woman, and they are shown in the context of the Russian landscape and society that has shaped them. Onegin draws all three into tragic situations which, if he had been willing and able to act, he could have prevented, and so becomes the one responsible for the misery of himself and others as well as the death of his friend. With Andrew Kahn Professor of Russian Literature at the University of Oxford and Fellow of St Edmund Hall Emily Finer Lecturer in Russian and Comparative Literature at the University of St Andrews and Simon Dixon The Sir Bernard Pares Professor of Russian History at University College London Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The American Populists  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss what, in C19th America's Gilded Age, was one of the most significant protest movements since the Civil War with repercussions well into C20th. Farmers in the South and Midwest felt ignored by the urban and industrial elites who were thriving as the farmers suffered droughts and low prices. The farmers were politically and physically isolated. As one man wrote on his abandoned farm, 'two hundred and fifty miles to the nearest post office, one hundred miles to wood, twenty miles to water, six inches to Hell'. They formed the Populist or People's Party to fight their cause, put up candidates for President, won several states and influenced policies. In the South, though, their appeal to black farmers stimulated their political rivals to suppress the black vote for decades and set black and poor white farmers against each other, tightening segregation. Aspects of the Populists ideas re-emerged effectively in Roosevelt's New Deal, even if they are mainly remembered now, if at all, thanks to allegorical references in The Wizard of Oz. The caricature above is of William Jennings Bryan, Populist-backed Presidential candidate. With Lawrence Goldman Professor of History at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London Mara Keire Lecturer in US History at the University of Oxford And Christopher Phelps Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Nottingham Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Christine de Pizan  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and works of Christine de Pizan, who wrote at the French Court in the late Middle Ages and was celebrated by Simone de Beauvoir as the first woman to 'take up her pen in defence of her sex.' She wrote across a broad range, and was particularly noted for challenging the depiction of women by famous writers such as Jean de Meun, author of the Romance of the Rose. She has been characterised as an early feminist who argued that women could play a much more important role in society than the one they were allotted, reflected in arguably her most important work, The Book of the City of Ladies, a response to the seemingly endless denigration of women in popular texts of the time. The image above, of Christine de Pizan lecturing, is (c)The British Library Board. Harley 4431, f.259v. With Helen Swift Associate Professor of Medieval French at the University of Oxford and Fellow of St Hilda's College Miranda Griffin Lecturer in French and Fellow of St Catharine's College, Cambridge and Marilynn Desmond Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Binghamton University Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Enzymes  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss enzymes, the proteins that control the speed of chemical reactions in living organisms. Without enzymes, these reactions would take place too slowly to keep organisms alive: with their actions as catalysts, changes which might otherwise take millions of years can happen hundreds of times a second. Some enzymes break down large molecules into smaller ones, like the ones in human intestines, while others use small molecules to build up larger, complex ones, such as those that make DNA. Enzymes also help keep cell growth under control, by regulating the time for cells to live and their time to die, and provide a way for cells to communicate with each other. With Nigel Richards Professor of Biological Chemistry at Cardiff University Sarah Barry Lecturer in Chemical Biology at King's College London And Jim Naismith Director of the Research Complex at Harwell Bishop Wardlaw Professor of Chemical Biology at the University of St Andrews Professor of Structural Biology at the University of Oxford Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Purgatory  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the flourishing of the idea of Purgatory from C12th, when it was imagined as a place alongside Hell and Heaven in which the souls of sinners would be purged of those sins by fire. In the West, there were new systems put in place to pray for the souls of the dead, on a greater scale, with opportunities to buy pardons to shorten time in Purgatory. The idea was enriched with visions, some religious and some literary; Dante imagined Purgatory as a mountain in the southern hemisphere, others such as Marie de France told of The Legend of the Purgatory of Saint Patrick, in which the entrance was on Station Island in County Donegal. This idea of purification by fire had appalled the Eastern Orthodox Church and was one of the factors in the split from Rome in 1054, but flourished in the West up to the reformations of C16th when it was again particularly divisive. With Laura Ashe Associate Professor of English and fellow of Worcester College at the University of Oxford Matthew Treherne Professor of Italian Literature at the University of Leeds and Helen Foxhall Forbes Associate Professor of Early Medieval History at Durham University Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Louis Pasteur  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and work of Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) and his extraordinary contribution to medicine and science. It is said few people have saved more lives than Pasteur. A chemist, he showed that otherwise identical molecules could exist as 'left' and 'right-handed' versions and that molecules produced by living things were always left-handed. He proposed a germ theory to replace the idea of spontaneous generation. He discovered that microorganisms cause fermentation and disease. He began the process named after him, pasteurisation, heating liquids to 50-60 C to kill microbes. He saved the beer and wine industries in France when they were struggling with microbial contamination. He saved the French silk industry when he found a way of protecting healthy silkworm eggs from disease. He developed vaccines against anthrax and rabies and helped establish immunology. Many of his ideas were developed further after his lifetime, but one of his legacies was a charitable body, the Pasteur Institute, to continue research into infectious disease. With Andrew Mendelsohn Reader in the School of History at Queen Mary, University of London Anne Hardy Honorary Professor at the Centre for History in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Michael Worboys Emeritus Professor in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Emily Dickinson  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and works of Emily Dickinson, arguably the most startling and original poet in America in the C19th. According to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, her correspondent and mentor, writing 15 years after her death, "Few events in American literary history have been more curious than the sudden rise of Emily Dickinson into a posthumous fame only more accentuated by the utterly recluse character of her life and by her aversion to even a literary publicity." That was in 1891 and, as more of Dickinson's poems were published, and more of her remaining letters, the more the interest in her and appreciation of her grew. With her distinctive voice, her abundance, and her exploration of her private world, she is now seen by many as one of the great lyric poets. With Fiona Green Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Jesus College Linda Freedman Lecturer in English and American Literature at University College London and Paraic Finnerty Reader in English and American Literature at the University of Portsmouth Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Battle of Lincoln 1217  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss The Battle of Lincoln on 20th May 1217, when two armies fought to keep, or to win, the English crown. This was a struggle between the Angevin and Capetian dynasties, one that followed Capetian successes over the Angevins in France. The forces of the new boy-king, Henry III, attacked those of Louis of France, the claimant backed by rebel Barons. Henry's regent, William Marshal, was almost seventy when he led the charge on Lincoln that day, and his victory confirmed his reputation as England's greatest knight. Louis sent to France for reinforcements but in August these, too, were defeated at sea, at the Battle of Sandwich. As part of the peace deal, Henry reissued Magna Carta, which King John had granted in 1215 but soon withdrawn, and Louis went home, leaving England's Anglo-French rulers more Anglo and less French than he had planned. The image above is by Matthew Paris (c1200-1259) from his Chronica Majora (MS 16, f. 55v) and appears with the kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge With Louise Wilkinson Professor of Medieval History at Canterbury Christ Church University Stephen Church Professor of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia and Thomas Asbridge Reader in Medieval History at Queen Mary, University of London Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the text and context of The Book of the Dead, also known as the Book of Coming Forth by Day, the ancient Egyptian collections of spells which were intended to help the recently deceased navigate the underworld. They flourished under the New Kingdom from C16th BC until the end of the Ptolemaic era in C1st BC, and drew on much earlier traditions from the walls of pyramids and on coffin cases. Almost 200 spells survive, though no one collection contains all of them, and one of the best known surrounds the weighing of the heart, the gods' final judgement of the deceased's life. With John Taylor Curator at the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum Kate Spence Senior Lecturer in Egyptian Archaeology at Cambridge University and Fellow of Emmanuel College and Richard Parkinson Professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford and Fellow of the Queen's College Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Roger Bacon  

The 13th-century English philosopher Roger Bacon is perhaps best known for his major work the Opus Maius. Commissioned by Pope Clement IV, this extensive text covered a multitude of topics from mathematics and optics to religion and moral philosophy. He is also regarded by some as an early pioneer of the modern scientific method. Bacon's erudition was so highly regarded that he came to be known as 'Doctor Mirabilis' or 'wonderful doctor'. However, he is a man shrouded in mystery. Little is known about much of his life and he became the subject of a number of strange legends, including one in which he allegedly constructed a mechanical brazen head that would predict the future. With: Jack Cunningham Academic Coordinator for Theology at Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln Amanda Power Associate Professor of Medieval History at the University of Oxford Elly Truitt Associate Professor of Medieval History at Bryn Mawr College Producer: Victoria Brignell.

Rosa Luxemburg  

Melvyn Bragg discusses the life and times of Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919), 'Red Rosa', who was born in Poland under the Russian Empire and became one of the leading revolutionaries in an age of revolution. She was jailed for agitation and for her campaign against the Great War which, she argued, pitted workers against each other for the sake of capitalism. With Karl Liebknecht and other radicals, she founded the Spartacus League in the hope of ending the war through revolution. She founded the German Communist Party with Liebknecht; with the violence that followed the German Revolution of 1918, her opponents condemned her as Bloody Rosa. She and Liebknecht were seen as ringleaders in the Spartacus Revolt of 1919 and, on 15th January 1919, the Freikorps militia arrested and murdered them. While Luxemburg has faced opposition for her actions and ideas from many quarters, she went on to become an iconic figure in East Germany under the Cold War and a focal point for opposition to the Soviet-backed leadership. With Jacqueline Rose Co-Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, Birkbeck, University of London Mark Jones Irish Research Council fellow at the Centre for War Studies, University College Dublin and Nadine Rossol Senior lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Essex Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Pauli's Exclusion Principle  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and ideas of Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958), whose Exclusion Principle is one of the key ideas in quantum mechanics. A brilliant physicist, at 21 Pauli wrote a review of Einstein's theory of general relativity and that review is still a standard work of reference today. The Pauli Exclusion Principle proposes that no two electrons in an atom can be at the same time in the same state or configuration, and it helps explain a wide range of phenomena such as the electron shell structure of atoms. Pauli went on to postulate the existence of the neutrino, which was confirmed in his lifetime. Following further development of his exclusion principle, Pauli was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1945 for his 'decisive contribution through his discovery of a new law of Nature'. He also had a long correspondence with Jung, and a reputation for accidentally breaking experimental equipment which was dubbed The Pauli Effect. With Frank Close Fellow Emeritus at Exeter College, University of Oxford Michela Massimi Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Edinburgh and Graham Farmelo Bye-Fellow of Churchill College, University of Cambridge Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Hokusai  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), the Japanese artist whose views of Mt Fuji such as The Great Wave off Kanagawa (pictured) are some of the most iconic in world art. He worked as Japan was slowly moving towards greater contact with the outside world, trading with China and allowing two Dutch ships to dock each year. From these ships he picked up new synthetic colours and illustrations with Western compositions, which he incorporated in his traditional wood block prints. The quality of his images helped drive demand for prints among the highly literate Japanese public, particularly those required to travel to Edo under feudal obligations and who wanted to collect all his prints. As well as the quality of his work, Hokusai's success stems partly from his long life and career. He completed some of his most memorable works in his 70s and 80s and claimed he would not reach his best until he was 110. With Angus Lockyer Lecturer in Japanese History at SOAS University of London Rosina Buckland Senior Curator of Japanese Collections at the National Museum of Scotland And Ellis Tinios Honorary Lecturer in the School of History, University of Leeds Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Battle of Salamis  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss what is often called one of the most significant battles in history. In 480BC in the Saronic Gulf near Athens, between the mainland and the island of Salamis, a fleet of Greek allies decisively defeated a larger Persian-led fleet. This halted the further Persian conquest of Greece and, at Plataea and Mycale the next year, further Greek victories brought Persian withdrawal and the immediate threat of conquest to an end. To the Greeks, this enabled a flourishing of a culture that went on to influence the development of civilisation in Rome and, later, Europe and beyond. To the Persians, it was a reverse at the fringes of their vast empire but not a threat to their existence, as it was for the Greek states, and attention turned to quelling unrest elsewhere. With Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones Professor in Ancient History at Cardiff University Lindsay Allen Lecturer in Greek and Near Eastern History, King's College London and Paul Cartledge Emeritus Professor of Greek Culture and AG Leventis Senior Research Fellow at Clare College, University of Cambridge Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the high temperatures that marked the end of the Paleocene and start of the Eocene periods, about 50m years ago. Over c1000 years, global temperatures rose more than 5 C on average and stayed that way for c100,000 years more, with the surface of seas in the Arctic being as warm as those in the subtropics. There were widespread extinctions, changes in ocean currents, and there was much less oxygen in the sea depths. The rise has been attributed to an increase of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, though it is not yet known conclusively what the source of those gases was. One theory is that a rise in carbon dioxide, perhaps from volcanoes, warmed up the globe enough for warm water to reach the bottom of the oceans and so release methane from frozen crystals in the sea bed. The higher the temperature rose and the longer the water was warm, the more methane was released. Scientists have been studying a range of sources from this long period, from ice samples to fossils, to try to understand more about possible causes. With Dame Jane Francis Professor of Palaeoclimatology at the British Antarctic Survey Mark Maslin Professor of Palaeoclimatology at University College London And Tracy Aze Lecturer in Marine Micropaleontology at the University of Leeds Producer: Simon Tillotson.

North and South  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Elizabeth Gaskell's novel North and South, published in 1855 after serialisation in Dickens' Household Words magazine. It is the story of Margaret Hale, who was raised in the South in the New Forest and London's Harley Street, and then moves North to a smokey mill town, Milton, in Darkshire. As well as Margaret's emotional life and her growing sense of independence, the novel explores the new ways of living thrown up by industrialisation, and the relationships between 'masters and men'. Many of Margaret Hale's experiences echo Gaskell's own life, as she was born in Chelsea and later moved to Manchester, and the novel has become valued for its insights into social conflicts and the changing world in which Gaskell lived. With Sally Shuttleworth Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford Dinah Birch Pro-vice Chancellor for Research and Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool And Jenny Uglow Biographer of Elizabeth Gaskell Producer: Simon Tillotson.

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