Pets, pesticides and the poisoner

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The pets section of an encyclopedia of urban myths would be replete with variations on the domestic-disaster theme: messy explosions in microwaves and (cleaner) catastrophes in tumble-dryers. So it came as quite a surprise to learn that the microwave evolved from a scientific need to heat hamsters humanely in a laboratory. In Eureka (R4), James Lovelock told Barbara Myers of his collaboration with biologists working on the preservation of living tissue in the 1950s. A colleague had managed to freeze living hamsters, then gently revive them by placing a heated spoon on their hearts. As if transmogrifying into a frozen block wasn't traumatic enough, the poor little rodents suffered chest burns during their resuscitation. In stepped the valiant Lovelock with a machine to heat the hamsters diathermically - from the inside out. Act of mercy completed, the scientist then used it for cooking his lunch.

Lovelock's genuine appliance of science - though medical ethics prevented him from patenting the device - was overshadowed by his other inventive discoveries, all of which he described in an engaging, and endearingly unassuming, manner. His electron-capture detector provided the raw data for the fledgling Green movement by identifying the ubiquity of pesticides in the world's ecosystem, and later, the increase of CFC particles in the atmosphere. But his Eureka moment was indeed a "blinding flash" of inspiration: the earth's elements - from its atmosphere to its organisms - must be part of a self-regulating system.

The Gaia hypothesis has since been appropriated by environmentalists, though Lovelock sounded saddened by their emphasis on people rather than the earth: "If we don't take care of the earth we're all doomed." If only the rest of science, and its practitioners, were that straightforward.

Moral conundrums were high on Radio 4's agenda this week. In New Commandments (R4), the redoubtable Polly Toynbee was holding Richard Addis, and his ethics, to account. The editor of the Express began by carving "to thine own self be true" on his personal tablet of stone. This, he claimed, influenced his newspaper's moral obligations: "Decency ... being fair ... protecting the weak ... rooting out humbug." But our Polly was on her own humbug-hunt, and by the end of the programme had Addis confess- ing to self-interest ("There's a merit and a virtue in being successful"); a dubiously flexible interpretation of the "thou shalt not bear false witness" newspaper code; and a rather confused sense of virtue: "One may be a hypocrite and a sinner but one's got to try to be true to one's own beliefs."

Toynbee had revealed that the majority of people can only remember three of the 10 Biblical commandments. If Richard Addis has exposed the pliability of individualistic "moral certainties", a minor spat on Tuesday's Afternoon Shift (R4) - in which two of the people involved in the recent forum to produce a code for the teaching of morals in schools argued over the meaning of "consensus" - confirmed the futility of drawing up any rule-book for contemporary society.

This week's Consequences (R4), at least, produced a vague kind of consensus between the residents of Brixton and the Metropolitan Police as to the cause of the 1981 riots. Racism was "the norm" in the Met at the time, and the policing tactics in the area - using an ancient vagrancy law to pick up and charge "suspects" with uncorroborated evidence - were largely held to be responsible for the conflagration. Ex-rioters talked of the exhilarating release of tension and frustration, and Lord Scarman's inquiry confirmed the socio-economic reasons for these feelings.

Scarman's report ended with President Johnson's plea, after the 1960s race riots in America, for a transformation of the "conditions that breed despair and violence ... discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs". This vivid "now and then" documentary only confirmed that, apart from a few licks of paint in Brixton, this judicial commandment has been largely ignored in the subsequent 16 years.

From the real grievances of Brixton, to the blackly surreal disgruntlement of The Wimbledon Poisoner (R4). Henry Farr "did not precisely decide to murder his wife. It was just simply that he could think of no other way of prolonging her absence indefinitely." Nigel Williams's tale of the ever-so-civilised suburban slaughterer, read by the devilishly deadpan David Troughton, juxtaposed the mundane and the macabre with relish.

Before plumping for poison, so that the unfortunate Eleanor "could be dead by the time children's television started", Farr calmly pondered other murderous methods: push- ing her off Beachy Head, plunging an electric fire into the bath, repeatedly striking her on the side of the head with an axe.

Unfortunately, for the station currently confronting society's (a)moral mores, these proposals were tarnished by a "suburban predictability": in fact, "all these methods were the staple diet of Radio 4 plays".

Sue Gaisford is away.

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