Radio: Melvyn clambers up the giant's arm

Sue Gaisford
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:28

There's a nice little programme to be made about the role of the apple in the history of mankind. It stars in three most potent myths: the temptation of Eve, the heroic archery of William Tell and, of course, the stunning of Newton. This week, Melvyn Bragg went on a pilgrimage to Newton's Lincolnshire birthplace and inspected the gnarled and ancient tree from which that apple is said to have descended. He concluded that it probably did, but like Archimedes in his bath, Newton was primed to recognise significance where the rest of us would have simply rubbed our heads or scrubbed our backs.

Of all the scientists featured in Giants' Shoulders (R4), it is Newton whom Bragg would most like to have known. And it was from a remark of Newton's that the series took its name: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

Newton's statement was far less humble than it sounds. By the time the programme ended, it had become clear that he'd have trampled roughshod on any shoulders he could find, if it gave him a better view. And Bragg's desire to meet him might also be prompted by more than a thirst for pure knowledge. Newton was the kind of fellow he'd have enjoyed interviewing: luminously brilliant, but contrary and peculiar.

Newton's admirers described him as reclusive, solitary, arrogant, difficult, obsessive, downright weird, paranoid and deeply unlikeable: we didn't hear from his enemies. Yet there is no denying that the rules he drew up in his Principia Mathematica underlie everything mechanical in the world, from the Forth Bridge to the Jupiter probe to the fast spin on the washing-machine. He was the first person to recognise that the universe is governed by immutable laws, not by the whims of capricious gods.

So impressed were his contemporaries that they couldn't bring themselves to translate his book from its original Latin until after his death (rather like people who buy Stephen Hawking's books but don't quite dare to read them). Then his work was popularised in such publications as "Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophies Explained For The Ladies". I don't know about those ladies, but I was grateful to Melvyn Bragg for inviting the Astronomer Royal to explain those rules for me, in terms that were very nearly comprehensible.

Newton appeared again on Start the Week (R4). His biographer, Michael White, talked about him as an alchemist, the last sorcerer as well as the first scientist. Unfortunately, although he devoted more words to alchemy than to maths and science put together, the code he used to prevent his rivals from copying his researches has left modern scholars equally in the dark.

This was a particularly good Start the Week, in which all the guests had powerful theses to present, and then they all discussed them, amicably and profitably. Susan Greenfield's reasoned contention that computers will never challenge the restless, exquisite dynamism of the brain, unless they learn to laugh or have headaches, was eventually followed by Professor Laszlo's description of the world as a planet at the limits of its capacity. Back came Greenfield, voicing fears, from her own area of expertise, about the annihilation or standardisation of the individual. But the reassuring conclusion was that, with careful planning, Doomsday is avoidable. Thus sketchily to sum up an hour's heady and stimulating argument is not to do it justice at all. At the risk of being accused of grabbing James Boyle's lapel every week, it should still be said that this is another programme that should not be cowering under the threat of the rescheduling axe, especially when it works this well.

Now, the rest is Bragg-free. Random Edition (R4) is back. With no hint of a headache, a computer selected 26 October 1728 as the day whose papers the irrepressible Peter Snow should read. It's a daft idea, really, but quite fun. The news of the day featured wild goings-on at Molly-houses (don't ask) annual celebrations of the Society of Gentleman Aliens and frequent harassments of travellers by marauding highwaymen. The Universal Spectator also printed some personal letters that day, providing another excuse for wheeling in Claire Rayner to assess its editor's expertise as agony uncle. Honestly, this woman parodies herself with every sentence. This time, she suggested psychiatric help for a wayward wife addicted to cards and a pets' bereavement group for the owners of a dead parrot.

Writers to the Radio Times are tougher: From the Editor's Postbag (R2) surveyed 74 years of this correspondence, which now amounts to some 500 items a week. The best were the early ones, from people bemused by the power of radio waves, who yet felt sure that they were soundly beneficial to health and would probably change the weather. Despite Barry Took's genial hosting, this became rather a scrappy programme, falling back on hoary old broadcasting Great Moments rather than giving us more of those enjoyably eccentric correspondents. I mean, Terry Wogan is indeed wonderful, but his unfortunate version of "The Floral Dance" didn't belong here (or, possibly, anywhere).

Finally a couple of thoroughly enjoyable broadcasts. R3's The Temptations of St Antony was about Chekhov. Beautifully produced by Noah Richler and passionately argued by Julian Evans, it sought out the paradoxes of the writer's last years at Yalta, toyed with the notion that romanticism and consumption were inextricably entwined, and lingered lovingly over the question of what fired and inspired him. A Russian doctor, Yuri, spoke in huge, guttural, swirling bursts, amid deep sighs, about love, and about work, and about fate: he sounded as if he could have been Chekhov.

Max Hillman's The Paganini Dream (R4) was about a young violinist out to win a prestigious prize. It was a sprawling octopus of a play, a comedy of black and gothic dimensions, appalling and horribly believable. Freddie Jones played the seedy lodger as if he had been Othello, with tragic panache, and I especially loved the character of the father. He was an unpredictable West Midlands phlegmatic, straight from NF Simpson, given to such utterances as "I'll tell you another of my favourite sandwiches. Lettuce. Very underrated sandwich, lettuce". Meanwhile the mother quietly wrings her hands and suspects her son of taking "Energy tablets". Great stuff.

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