Radio / FROM BOMBS TO BLACK HOLES Radio 4

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The Independent Culture
There should be a shelf in the radio supermarket where you could get organic, whole science. Mostly, it comes stuffed with additives - whodunit flavourings in Medical Detectives (Radio 4), a new drama series about great stories from medical history; artificial jauntiness in If You're So Smart (also Radio 4), in which Johnnie Vaughan provides the kind of in-depth analysis of problems like cancer and energy production that you might look for from, say, Murray Walker. These are both interesting enough programmes but they both assume that science is a bitter pill which has to be heftily sweetened if listeners are to get it down without gagging.

If the ordinary listener really does feel that way, then at least he's not alone: one thing that emerged in From Bombs to Black Holes (Radio 4), a history of the last 50 years of physics in Britain, was that governments also need some sort of extra-curricular incentive to arouse their interest in science, and the incentive has usually been military.

At times, this has had bonuses - because Britain wanted radar sensitive enough to track missiles, Bernard Lovell got the funding he needed to set up Jodrell Bank, and Britain led the world in radio-astronomy. Because Britain wanted to walk into the conference chamber dressed to kill, money was ploughed into Harwell and Britain briefly led the world in nuclear fusion.

Quite how much of a Faustian bargain this was wasn't clear. Lovell sounded a bit cheesed off that he had been dragged into a long-term relationship with the defence community; but aside from the fact that he'd had to use his beloved radio telescopes to track Sputnik, there was no indication that the demands of his paymasters had much limited the sort of research he did. The more interesting question, one which Frank Close's programme didn't clear up, was how far government funding policy skewed research in the direction of "big" science at the expense of smaller-scale research.

The problem here was that too much was crammed into one programme: half a century of progress in three major fields (particle physics, astronomy and fusion), each of which could fill a series. And there was a layer of allegory on top of all that. What the programme was really about was how Britain has declined since the war, from a leading actor to a bit- part player in international co-productions. It may not have told you much about the way the universe works; but it was an instructive comment on the way of the world.

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