The Week In Radio: Now they're really taking a liberty

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There was a point, some time in mid-morning on Big Bang Day (Radio 4, Wednesday), when I started to feel that about the only thing that could justify this much coverage would be if the Large Hadron Collider really did generate a black hole that swallowed the Earth and snuffed out human existence for all eternity. Under those circumstances, they could even put up a good case for postponing The Archers.

Don't mistake me: I'm all for putting science and more science on the radio, but having this much crammed down my throat at once made me feel like a goose on the foie gras production line. Actually, what bothered me was not so much the physics as the assumption that we couldn't possibly be interested in the physics without the intervention of Andrew Marr – that, and a programme in which Dr Brian Cox, physicist and ex-pop musician, interviewed celebrities with an interest in cosmology.

If celebrities want to take an interest in the big universe, that's their prerogative. I'll even accept that there's an argument for putting them on the radio to lend the topic an air of glamour (but Alan Alda? Radio 4? This is not glamour as they understood it in Hollywood's golden age). What I won't accept is that there's any excuse for giving the programme the title Physics Rocks.

If you wanted to understand the point of the LHC, though, the best place to go was Simon Singh's series Five Particles, broadcast Monday to Friday afternoons, in which he took us through the mysteries of the electron, the quark, the anti-particle, the neutrino and, finally, the whatever-it-is that comes next – Higgs boson, if we're lucky. This was the only programme that made me feel my brain was being thoroughly engaged, as opposed to massaged with relaxing metaphors and soothing words about how nobody really understands it all anyway. The episode on antiparticles was the best: I have a vivid memory of hearing Doctor Who warn that if matter and antimatter ever meet they will annihilate one another in an explosion of terrifying power, and ever since, I have been deeply wary of antimatter. Singh played the relevant excerpt and explained that the Doctor was absolutely right. And they all said I was paranoid.

Usually, the only place on Radio 4 where you can hear highly energetic particles hurtling into one another is The Moral Maze; but Monday had an excellent pair of debates. In the evening, Evan Davis – who is using his post on the Today programme as a base to establish himself as king of Radio 4 – chaired The Credit Crunch Mess: What Next?, which gained an extra charge from the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The main lesson I took from this was that economists are less hysterical about the state of the economy than journalists are, which is consoling if you assume that economists know what they are talking about.

Earlier in the day, Justin Webb presided over America, Empire of Liberty, a debate that acted as a curtain-raiser for David Reynolds's 90-part history of the United States. Two striking things here: the first was how swiftly the conversation turned to race and slavery, and how it couldn't afterwards be dragged away from the subject; and the second was the strength of the conviction, even for black Americans, that the United States offers greater freedom and greater opportunity than any other society in history. It's worth being reminded of that now and then.