The Week In Radio: The think tank for unthinkable thoughts

On Sunday night, I turned on my radio to hear a man with an American accent talking about a plan to defend the US from missile attack by bolting 10,000 rocket engines to the ground, thrusters facing the rising sun. At the first glimmer of a nuclear-missile attack, the engines would all be ignited at once, their combined thrust pushing against the Earth's rotation enough to pause it, with the result that the missiles would all land well to the east of their targets.

The drawbacks to this idea are obvious: all those rockets would generate prodigious heat, and there is a distinct possibility that, rather than pausing the Earth, their force would loose North America from its moorings, leading to cataclysmic earthquakes, tsunamis and eruptions; the ICBMs might be a gentler option. But still, the ambition! It's up there with Archimedes and his Earth-moving lever.

As it turned out, what I was hearing was RAND: All Your Tomorrows Today, a Radio 3 feature about the RAND Corporation of California, the original think-tank, which, since the 1940s, has been looking for new ways of thinking about the challenges facing the US or "imposing the higher powers of mankind on the most insoluble problems".

RAND's influence on the late 20th century is hard to measure, but generally agreed to be large: its first publication was on the possibility of "an experimental, world-circling spaceship" 10 years before sputnik and its thinkers have been credited with inventing game theory and much of the technology and ideas underlying the internet.

Its origins were military it was founded by the US Air Force and was soon busy planning for nuclear war (game theory was a way of predicting the behaviour of players of the nuclear game). Key figures included Herman Kahn, who contemplated possible results of different kinds of nuclear war: his book On Thermonuclear War was condemned by Scientific American as a "how to" book on mass murder, and passages from it inspired dialogue in Kubrick's Dr Strangelove. Kahn complained that when he said that an outcome involving five million deaths was better than one involving 500 million, he was accused of saying that five million deaths don't matter; whereas he thought the difference between five and 500 million mattered enormously.

The phrase "thinking the unthinkable" was closely associated with RAND, and as thinkers of the unthinkable will attest from Archimedes, stabbed by that Roman soldier, to Frank Field MP the job doesn't make you popular. It was never that freaky (the Atlas rocket idea was never taken seriously), but in the Vietnam era, RAND became emblematic of American neoimperialism, a supposed secret state.

The programme was written and presented by Ken Hollings, who three years ago did a splendid short feature on Radio 3, Connecting, about "phone phreaks" 1970s pioneers of computer hacking. Here, he seemed to push towards RAND being a kind of underground, alternative culture, though in truth it is a very public arm of the establishment. But Mark Burman produced brilliantly, undercutting the apocalyptic narrative with ethereal and melancholy Beach Boys harmonies, and it lived up to my first impression of something surprising.

Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray is joining Strictly Come Dancing 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Double bill: Kookie Ryan, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Papou in ‘Nymphomaniac’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Big Blues - Shark' by Alexander Mustard won the Coast category

photography
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering