“Everything that is done or written is done by someone who is half a chromosome away from being a chimpanzee. It’s not going to be any better than that.”
In this episode of Little Atoms, Christopher Hitchens explores the dangers of mans tendency towards religion and our attitudes to freedom. The ultimate fight, he argues, is against censorship.
Man created God, God didn’t create man. Hitchens describes this creation as an ineradicable problem that humanity cannot solve.
Religion takes advantage of our bad wiring and selfishness. We would be better off if we grew out of it, but until we give up wishful thinking and our fear of death, it is impossible”.
Although religion is an incurable affliction, Hitchens argues that western leaders must not dismiss the threat posed by it.
“The possible interception of messianic ideas with apocalyptic weaponry is increasingly something to be worried about.”
Our predisposition towards order and security undermines our struggle for liberty. For Hitchens, this explains why liberation struggles are so rare and so unsatisfactory.
“Most people, most of the time, have no great desire to be free. We would rather have the trouble of putting up with oppression rather than having the trouble of throwing it off.”
With the threat posed by religion and our apathy towards liberty, Hitchens believes the ultimate enemy we face is censorship. Hitchens argues that all things associated with enlightenment are worth dying for. He describes the struggle against censorship as “a fight that can be won but certainly one that cannot be lost”.
First broadcast 08/06/07
How can equations be beautiful? Graham Farmelo discusses Nobel Prize winner Paul Dirac’s life and achievements.
Paul Dirac rose from a modest background to the pinnacle to modern science.
Farmelo describes it as a bleak upbringing, with a strong emphasis on education and strict disciplinarian as a father.
At Cambridge, engineer turned physicist Dirac began producing “a beautiful vision of quantum mechanics”. Farmelo describes his papers as having “the perfection of Shakespeare sonnet”.
His breakthrough came with the Dirac equation, which combined quantum mechanics with special relativity to understand the behaviour of the electron. For Farmelo “a beautiful unity between two subjects.”
Dirac married his imagination and mathematics to predict the existence of anti-matter, the discovery that later won him the Nobel prize.
Formelo finds great beauty in the perfection of Dirac’s equation. He says an equation has “a power and compactness like great poetry. A great equation is the most highly charged form of mathematical science. It all fits perfectly together like a Rubiks cube; you can’t change it at all.”
On Dirac's gravestone was written: “because God made it so” suggesting sympathy with religion. But Farmelo argues this was his wife’s influence and that although his views softened in later life, Dirac was fiercely against religion.
Dirac’s own religion was simple: “Man can and must improve”. Seeing God’s will at odds with his science, he could not believe in miracles, “because if they happened,it would break the beauty of universal equations.”
First broadcast 22/01/10
Nick Lane is a biochemist in the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London and leads the UCL Origins of Life Programme.
His first book, Oxygen, was one of the SundayTimes Books of the Year in 2002. Power, Sex, Suicide was named as a book of the year in The Economist in 2005 and was short-listed for The Aventis Science Book Prize.
Life Ascending won the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books. His latest book is The Vital Question: Why is life the way it is?
Joanna Biggs is a writer and editor at the London Review of Books, where she has reported on the student protest movement, the recession in Middlesbrough, Legal Aid cuts, censorship in China, and manufacturing. She is the author of All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work.
Stevan Alcock is a writer, linguist and translator. Born and brought up in Yorkshire, he lived in Berlin for several years before moving to London where he graduated with an Honours BA in German Language and Literature from Goldsmiths College. In 2013 Stevan was awarded an MA (Distinction) in Contemporary Prose Fiction by Kingston University. His debut novel is Blood Relatives.
Neil Denny in conversation with neuroscientist David Eagleman about time perception, synesthesia and many possible afterlives. The interview includes David reading one of the short stories from his new book.
David Eagleman is is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, Texas, where he directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. He is best known for his work on time perception, synesthesia and neurolaw. He is also a fiction writer. David’s most recent book is Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives.
Adam Rutherford is a geneticist, writer and broadcaster, whose work includes the award-winning series The Cell (BBC4), The Gene Code (BBC4), Horizon: 'Playing God' (BBC2) as well as numerous programmes for BBC Radio 4 such as the recently launched Inside Science. Previously an editor at the science journal Nature, Adam often writes for the Guardian and has given numerous prestigious lectures, as well as appearing in the 'Uncaged Monkeys' tour. His first book is Creation: The Origin of Life/The Future of Life.
Interview one first broadcast on 16th October 2009.
Interview two first broadcast on 12th July 2013.
Gavin Francis is a GP, and the author of True North and Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins, which won the Scottish Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize and Costa Prize. He also writes for Guardian, The Times, London Review of Books and Granta. His latest book is Adventures in Human Being.
Dr Brandy Schillace writes about culture, the history of medicine, and the intersections of medicine and literature. She is Research Associate and guest curator for the Dittrick Medical History Center and Managing Editor of the international medical anthropology journal Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry. She teaches for the SAGES department at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, and has lectured at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester, the University College of Dublin, and the New York Academy of Medicine. She writes for The Huffington Post and InsideHigherEd, among other publications. She is the author of Death’s Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying Can Tell us About Life and Living.
Caitlin Doughty was born and raised in Hawaii. She moved to California after gaining a degree in Medieval History from the University of Chicago. She is now a licensed funeral director living and working in LA. She is also a writer, performer and film-maker and is the creator of 'The Order of the Good Death', an online community of artists, actors, poets, musicians and directors who are committed to staring down their death fears through art. Caitlin is the author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, And Other Lessons From the Crematorium.
Johann Hari is a journalist who has written for the New York Times, the LA Times, the Guardian,Le Monde, Slate, the New Republic and The Nation among others. He was a columnist on the Independent for nine years and was twice named Newspaper Journalist of the Year by Amnesty International UK. He has also been named Cultural Commentator of the Year by the Editorial Intelligence awards and Gay Journalist of the Year by Stonewall.
This is the biography from Johann Hari's new book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. It leaves out rather a lot. In this interview Neil Denny talks to Johann about the book, but not before he has apologized to some other friends of Little Atoms.
Edward Slingerland is an internationally recognized expert in both early Chinese thought and the links between cognitive science and the humanities.
He is Professor of Asian Studies, Associate Member in the Departments of Philosophy and Psychology, and holds the Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of Effortless Action (2003) and What Science Offers the Humanities (2008). His latest book is Trying Not to Try: The Ancient Art of Effortlessness and the Surprising Power of Spontaneity.
ZoeWilliams writes comment pieces, interviews and reviews. She is best known as a Guardian columnist, but her work has also appeared in the Spectator, NOW magazine, the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. She is the author of numerous books on parenting, and her latest book is Get it Together: Why We Deserve Better Politics.
On Wednesday 29 April the winner of the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize will be announced. In the second of two special editions of Little Atoms, Neil Denny talks to two more shortlisted writers, Henry Marsh and Marion Coutts.
Henry Marsh is one of the UK’s foremost neurosurgeons. He has been the subject of two major documentary films, Your Life in Their Hands and The English Surgeon, which won an Emmy. He was made a CBE in 2010. He is the author of Do No Harm: Life, Death and Brain Surgery, which is shortlisted for the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize.
Marion Coutts is an artist and writer. She wrote the introduction to art critic Tom Lubbock's memoir Until Further Notice, I am Alive, published by Granta in 2012. She is a Lecturer in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College and the author of a memoir, The Iceberg, which was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction in 2014, and has been shortlisted for the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize.
Cory Doctorow is a science fiction novelist, blogger and technology activist. He is the co-editor of the popular weblog Boing Boing, and a contributor to Wired, The Guardian, Popular Science, the New York Times, and many other newspapers, magazines and websites. A visiting senior lecturer at the Open University, he was formerly Director of European Affairs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation), a non-profit civil liberties group that defends freedom in technology law, policy, standards and treaties. He is currently on the advisory council of the Open Rights Group..
He has won the Locus and Sunburst Awards, and been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and British Science Fiction Awards. His most recent novel was Makers, and his previous novel Little Brother, made it to the New York Times Bestsellers.
George Orwell wrote some of his most renowned essays for the British left-wing publication Tribune between 1940 and 1947, including "Books vs Cigarettes", "You And The Atom Bomb" and the regular "As I Please" column. These works were compiled by Paul Anderson in the book "Orwell in Tribune."
Interview first broadcast on 18th August 2006.
“Science is what stops us living in caves”
In this episode Professor Brian Cox takes us back to the beginning of the universe to discuss what the Large Hadron Collider will do for science and what science does for us.
“The further back in time you look the simpler it appears, if you want to understand the building blocks but also the forces that stick them together this is the best way to do it”.
The LHC accelerates protons to 99.999 per cent of the speed of light, around the ring 11,000 times a second.
Cox hopes the LHC will help us understand the fundamental mechanism of how mass was generated.
But more than that, the LHC may answer some unexpected questions. “The universe is full of things we don’t understand, like dark matter. We might discover extra dimensions, or signposts as to why gravity is such a weak force.”
Science receives 0.23 per cent of GDP, roughly £3.5 billion a year. With so many questions to answer, Cox argues that current funding is inadequate.
“We built the modern world, and that’s only from a few people doing a bit of research, because it’s under funded. We spent £800 billion bailing out the financial sector. That’s more money than we spent on physics since Jesus”.
With investment in research and development but also scientific literacy, Cox hopes we will find some of the answers to our questions and predicts that “something beautiful and profound will emerge in the next 20 years”.
“The responsibility of the novelist is to be irresponsible. You do what you want, the more you upset the better”.
As a writer Howard Jacobson finds great joy in being offensive. He argues that one of the ways comedy works is to cleanse the system, “you laugh at the things you should not laugh at. You have to have a moment you break everything you believe in”.
Racist comedy too has its place, “comedy is a place you go, some of the time, to be absolutely vile. And if you aren’t going to go, where are you going to go?”
But it is part of the novelist's job never to push an ideology. Jacobson argues the first thing you must do is to overcome what you believe and that “to do so is a great aesthetic leap.”
On the question of limits, most of the time Jacobson would argue “tough, read something else” but admits that he sometimes he does censor himself. “Demonstrably bad taste is corny; you can tell when someone is trying to hard.”
“Our sense of humour is part of our sense of intelligence. If we are solemn and tip toe around it, we deny the best part of our minds the chance to deal with the most horrible thing that ever happened.”
First broadcast on 14th December 2007
On Wednesday 29 April the winner of the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize will be announced. In the first of two special editions of Little Atoms, Neil Denny talks to three of the shortlisted writers. This week: Miriam Toews, Scott Stossell and Sarah Moss.
Miriam Toews was born in 1964 in the small Mennonite town of Steinbach, Manitoba. She has published four novels and a memoir of her father, and is the recipient of numerous literary awards including the Governor General's Award, the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award (twice), and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. Her latest novel is All my Puny Sorrows, which is shortlisted for the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize.
Scott Stossel is the editor of The Atlantic magazine and the author of the New York Times bestseller My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind which is shortlisted for the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize.
Sarah Moss was educated at Oxford University and is currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Warwick. She is the author of two novels; Cold Earth and Night Waking, which was selected for the Fiction Uncovered Award in 2011. She spent 2009-10 as a visiting lecturer at the University of Iceland, and wrote an account of her time there in Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland, which was shortlisted for the 2013 RSL Ondaatje Prize. Her latest novel, Bodies of Light, was published by Granta Books in 2014, and is shortlisted for the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize.
Adam Macqueen has been a hack at Private Eye magazine on and off for 14 years. He was assistant, deputy and finally acting editor of The Big Issue between 1999 and 2002. He’s on the editorial team of Popbitch.com, and was an associate producer on Adam Curtis’s BBC series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. Adam is the author of various books including The King of Sunlight, and his latest is Private Eye: The First 50 Years.
First broadcast on 18th November 2011.
Alok Jha is science and environment correspondent at the Guardian. In addition to writing news and comment, he presents the Science Weekly podcast and runs the Guardian's science website. Alok's first book is How to Live Forever and 34 Other Really Interesting Uses of Science.
First broadcast on 11th March 2011.
Jon Ronson is a writer and documentary film maker.
He began his journalistic career as an award-winning columnist for Time Out. He also wrote the popular “Human Zoo” column for The Guardian and produced the BBC Radio 4 documentary Hotel Auschwitz. He also presents the late night Radio 4 series, Jon Ronson on…
For Channel 4, Jon has made the acclaimed five part series the Secret Rulers of the World, multi award-winning Tottenham Ayatollah, New Klan, New York to California (A Great British Odyssey), Dr Paisley, I Presume, the four-part series Critical Condition, and the late-night chat show For The Love Of…
For BBC2 he made the six part series The Ronson Mission. Now contributing regularly to The Guardian, Jon has written two books, Them: Adventures with Extremists and The Men Who Stare at Goats.
Brian Switek is a science writer and research associate at the New Jersey State Museum. He writes the blog Laelaps for Wired Science, and Dinosaur Tracking for Smithsonian. He has been a guest on BBC Radio 4's Material World and written for The Times and the Guardian, as well as the Wall Street Journal and Scientific American. Brian is the author of Written in Stone: The Hidden Secrets of Fossils and the Story of Life on Earth.
First broadcast on 19th August 2011.
Charlotte Higgins studied Classics at Balliol College, Oxford and is the Guardian's chief arts writer. She is the author of a number of books, including Latin Love Lessons and It's All Greek to Me. Her latest is Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Samuel Johnson Prize. Also this week, writer Seth Mnookin on the Richard Stark "Parker" novels.
First broadcast on 12th April 2014.
Charles Fernyhough is a writer and psychologist. The Baby in the Mirror, his book about his daughter's psychological development, was translated into seven languages. He has also written two novels, The Auctioneer a A Box of Birds. He is a Reader in Psychology at Durham University and has written for the Guardian, Financial Times and Sunday Telegraph. His latest book is Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory.
First broadcast on 17th August 2012.
Greg Jenner is the historical consultant to CBBC's multi-award winning Horrible Histories,Horrible Histories with Stephen Fry, and the various HH spin-offs. As well as contributing sketches and co-writing Stephen Fry's links, over the past four years he has been solely responsible for the factual accuracy of nearly one thousand comedy sketches with subject matter that has spanned the entirety of human history.
Greg studied at the University of York and, after dropping initial plans for a life in academia, has worked on historical documentaries and dramas for the past seven years. Greg's first book is A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Everyday Life from the Stone Age to the Phone Age.
Late last year, Little Atoms took part in an audio installation, Mind’s Eye, which consisted of a number of interviews with scientists involved in current space missions.
Mind’s Eye is now on tour, and can been heard from 16 to 22 February as part of Smashfest UK at the Albany Theatre in Deptford. Here are two interviews recorded for this tour. Dr Shoshana Weider was a postdoctoral fellow on NASA’s Messenger mission to Mercury, and Dr Matt Taylor is currently Project Scientist on ESA’s Rosetta.
Jonathan Balcome is an independent animal behaviour research scientist and a consultant for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine He is the author of Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good, and most recently Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals.
This show featured a guest host, Christine Ottery.
Christine Ottery is a journalist and blogger published on Guardian.co.uk and Comment is Free, Timesonline.co.uk, Newscientist.com and Theecologist.co.uk. She is also a researcher for George Monbiot and multimedia Science Journalism MA student at City University.
Simon Ardizzone is a freelance editor and filmmaker living and working in the UK. Since graduating from the National Film and Television School in 1995, Simon has worked on over 50 films for English and American broadcasters. Hacking Democracy, his first documentary, co-produced and directed with Russell Michaels, was nominated for Outstanding Investigative Journalism at this year's Emmy Awards. Hacking Democracy which proved that vote-counting computers could reverse the results of an American election, was shown last year by HBO to widespread critical acclaim and has become a tool for election reform activists across the states.
Interview first broadcast on 7th December 2007.
Dr Hannah Fry is a mathematician and complexity scientist from University College London’s Center for Advanced Spatial Analysis. Fry also regularly presents the Number Hub strand of BBC Worldwide’s YouTube channel, and regularly appears on radio and tv in the UK, most recently Climate Change by Numbers on BBC4. Her first TED talk attracted more than 500,000 views and evolved into her first book, The Mathematics of Love.
Jon Ronson is an award-winning writer and documentary maker. He is the author of many bestselling books, including Frank: The True Story that Inspired the Movie, Lost at Sea: The Jon RonsonMysteries, The Psychopath Test, The Men Who Stare at Goats and Them: Adventures with Extremists. His first fictional screenplay, Frank, co-written with Peter Straughan, starred Michael Fassbender. Jon’s latest book is So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
Dr. Dennis C Reuter is a New Horizons co-investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and the instrument scientist for Ralph, the New Horizons color imager and infrared spectrometer. New Horizons launched on 19 January 2006 and is scheduled to fly-by Pluto and its moons in July 2015. This is another interview recorded by Little Atoms for audio installation Mind's Eye,which will be coming to Manchester, Bristol and Bradford over the coming months.