“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
Lynn Barber, the demon of Fleet Street, talks interviewing; the good, the bad and the bollocks
Barber started her career at Penthouse Magazine, writing about the parameters of sexuality. “It trained me never to be embarrassed and never to show shock or disgust.”
The secret to a good interview, according to Barber, is getting people to talk. “I am genuinely interested in them at the point I am interviewing, I want to understand them”.
But it’s not always plain sailing, the real disasters are never written up and the ones that make the cut are not always perfect.
“If someone else did it better, that’s slightly frustrating, or sometimes every conceivable question has already asked, what more is there to get?”
For Barber, contemporary artists are a favourite but can be difficult to interview. “The reason they are artists is they don’t trust words very much and they express themselves in other ways. To find a way of interviewing that isn't bollocks and has an attachment to reality is a challenge.”
Anita Sethi discusses how we are all connected and what the internet means for dictatorship and democracy.
Anita maps her ancestry back to Kenya and argues the need to connect is amplified in diaspora communities.
“Migrants have a greater desire for tactile connection; if it was a forced exile or removal many experience the anxiety of loss. You can’t control the way you left so you try to connect, either by mapping your own journey or by retaining a physical representation of origin.”
The internet and social media have exponentially increased the ability to connect. In Kenya, where the majority of the population is under 30, Sethi argues there has been a huge impact in the democratisation of society.
“In a country where it used to take five years to publish a book, the outlet for information and the ability to instantaneously connect is empowering.”
Being able to communicate an idea with such speed is a privilege, but access to information is a right. Sethi argues that dictators use the restriction information as an authoritarian weapon.
“When a regime feels threatened it cuts off means of information."
Closer to home, Sethi finds the growing closures of British libraries worrying.
“Libraries provide wisdom, knowledge and the right to learn for all. The ability to challenge thinking is a human right.”
In this episode of Little Atoms from 2009, Noam Chomsky examines the Obama administration and asks what has really changed.
Chomsky describes the first term of the Bush administration as “off the spectrum” in both aggression and arrogance. US international prestige sank to the lowest pointsince measured. It is hardly surprising therefore that the next candidate should have moved towards the centre.
Violent interventionism has gone hand in hand with American exceptionalism for centuries, says Chomsky. Obama’s ideology, according to Chomsky has been “less extreme but basically hasn’t changed.”
Chomsky explores the history and dangers of humanitarian intervention.
“You can’t say it can never be benevolent but there is a heavy burden of proof. It makes sense to talk about the responsibility to protect, but it should not be left in the hands of violent, aggressive powers”.
The internet played a prominent role in changing popular activism and proliferating conspiracy theories under the Bush regime. Through the internet, the 9/11 movement diverted people away from activism on serious issues.
“It stopped questions on things the administration would rather keep secret.”
But Obama has found the internet useful. Chomsky argues has it been “a very effective cult generator” and crucial in the construction of Brand Obama.
Obama, like Bush, used the internet to distract activists from protesting state crimes.
In this week’s podcast, Neil Denny travels to Oakland, California, to the headquarters of the National Center for Science Education to talk to Eugenie Scott. Eugenie Scott is Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education.
She has written extensively on the evolution-creationism controversy and is a past president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. She is the author of Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction".
Why do so many American people believe their government is conspiring against them?
In this episode of Little Atoms Kathy Olmsted examines the development of the culture of conspiracy in American society from grassroots to President.
Olmsted identifies World War One and the birth of the modern state as the origin of mass American conspiracy culture.
“As government gets bigger and more powerful and surveillance agencies enforce espionage acts, the American people start to feel the fear of the government as an institution.”
For Olmsted, the state is both the subject and origin of conspiracy theories. She argues that as the government starts watching people, people start to fear they are being watched.
“America starts to believe government is starting to lie cover up and conspire, because it is.”
Conspiracy theories are not confined to the public in American society. Leaders too fall pray to paranoia.
Olmsted argues this is because: “Leaders have access to information; they know that conspiracies exist so come to logical conclusion that more are taking place.”
The culture of transparency perpetuates the notion of conspiracy. The release o information about Northwoods for example, formed the basis of many contemporary conspiracy theories. Many Americans saw it as a template for 9/11.
Omstead explores the irony of democracy and conspiracy from Hoover to Obama to argue that America’s unique contradiction of transparency but lack of accountability serves only to perpetuate conspiracy culture. A culture ingrained in America’s past and present.
First broadcast 10/07/09
While spending the day at Caltech, in Pasadena, CA. Neil spent some time talking with the former Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Edward Stone. Edward Stone joined Caltech as a research fellow in physics after receiving his Master of Science degree and PhD, in physics at the University of Chicago. Over the years, he has held a variety of positions, from assistant professor to Vice President for Astronomical Facilities. In 1972 he became project scientist for the Voyager mission, a position he currently still holds. He was the Director of JPL from January 1991 to April 2001, when he went back to teaching at Caltech. While Stone was Director, JPL’s Mars Pathfinder and its Sojourner rover sent back images that were seen by millions of people on television and the Web. Among other successes were the Mars Global Surveyor, Deep Space 1, TOPEX/Poseidon, NASA Scatterometer, and the launch of Cassini, Stardust, and 2001 Mars Odyssey.
The annual conference of the Orange County Freethought Alliance took place over the weekend of 19 and 20 May 2012 at the University of California, Irvine. Neil Denny attended the conference on the Saturday 19 May and talked to some of the speakers. This podcast features five short interviews.
Richard Carrier is a writer for Internet Infidels and a historian of the historical Jesus; Aron Ra is an internet activist who uses phylogenetics to counter the claims of creationists; Heina Dadabhoy is a former muslim and a current writer for Skepchick; Dave Silverman is the president of American Atheists and organiser of the Reason Rally; Brian Dunning is the producer and presenter of the seminal podcast Skeptoid.
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.
In this episode, Neil visits the University of Chicago and spends some time in the company of Jerry Coyne. Jerry Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, where he works on diverse areas of evolutionary genetics. His research focuses on the origin of new species, using the fruit fly (Drosophila) as mode organism. A former student of the distinguished Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin, Coyne has taught evolutionary biology for more than 25 years, and has contributed frequently to the public debate concerning evolution and creationism. He has published widely in research journals and is the author, with Allen Orr, of Speciation, now the standard academic text in the subject. He was elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2007. Jerry is the author of Why Evolution is True.
Jonathan Meades is a broadcaster and the author of several books including three works of fiction - Filthy English, Pompey and The Fowler Family Business - and several anthologies of which the most recently published is Museum Without Walls, which received 11 nominations as a book of the year in 2012.
Professor Will Alsop is one of Britain’s most renowned architects. He is currently a professor at the Technical University of Vienna.
Adam Curtis is a producer, writer and director of television documentaries such as Pandora's Box, The Mayfair Set, The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares and The Trap. Curtis' programs, though always about serious issues, maintain a sense of tongue-in-cheek humor and are characteristic in their extensive use of archive footage. In his film making, Curtis strives to find meaningful connections between historical situations and often focuses on the impact different ideologies have had on modern society. Adam's latest series, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace begins on BBC2 on 23rd May 2011. Adam has been our guest on Little Atoms twice.
Interview one first broadcast on 21st November 2008.
Paul Anderson is a former editor of Tribune and deputy editor of the New Statesman, currently a lecturer at City University. His book of George Orwell's columns for Tribune, Orwell in Tribune, is published next month by Politico's. Pauls Blog can be found here.
Interview first broadcast on 18th August 2006.
Dr Cordelia Fine is an academic psychologist and writer. She is the author of A Mind of Its Own: How your brain distorts and deceives, and writes regularly for the press. She wrote the introduction for the Britannica Guide to the Brain, and her second book, Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Difference is now published.
Cordelia studied Experimental Psychology at Oxford University, followed by an M.Phil in Criminology at Cambridge University. She was awarded a Ph.D in Psychology from University College London. From 2002 to 2007 she was a Research Associate at Monash University, and then at the Australian National University. She is currently a Research Associate at the Centre for Agency, Values & Ethics at Macquarie University, and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Department of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne.
First broadcast on 10th September 2010.
Arthur I. Miller is emeritus professor of history and philosophy of science at University College London. He is the author of several acclaimed books, including Einstein, Picasso, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Empire of the Stars, which was shortlisted for the 2006 Aventis Prize for Science Books, and 137, which we’re discussed on a previous Little Atoms. An experienced broadcaster, lecturer and biographer, he is particularly interested in the relationship between science and creativity, and his latest book is Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science is Redefining Contemporary Art.
Salena Godden writes and performs poetry, fiction, memoir, radio drama and lyrics. Her latest book of poems, Fishing in the Aftermath, was published in 2014 by Burning Eye Books. She runs The Book Club Boutique, London's louchest literary salon, and is lead singer and lyricist of SaltPeter, alongside composer Peter Coyte. She can regularly be heard on Radio 4 and last year presented the documentary 'Try A Little Tenderness – The Lost Legacy of Little Miss Cornshucks'. Her literary memoir Springfield Road was recently published by Unbound.
Kate Hamer grew up in Pembrokeshire. She did a Creative Writing MA at Aberystwyth University and the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course. She won the Rhys Davies short story award in 2011 and her winning story was read out on BBC Radio 4. She has recently been awarded a Literature Wales bursary. The Girl in the Red Coat is her first novel.
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.
Andrew Scull is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Science Studies, University of California, San Diego. He has previously taught at the University of Pennsylvania and at Princeton.
His many publications include Museums of Madness; Social Order/Mental Disorder; The Most Solitary of Afflictions: Madness and Society in Britain, 1700–1900; Masters of Bedlam; Madhouse: A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Modern Medicine; and Madness: A Very Short Introduction.
He has also published numerous articles and reviews in leading journals, including the TLS, The Lancet and Brain. He has held fellowships from (among others) the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies and in 1992–93 he was the president of the Society for the Social History of Medicine. His latest book is Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity.
This week’s Little Atoms is a special edition recorded at FutureEverything 2015 in Manchester on 26 and 27 February 2015. The show features a long interview recorded live with writer, researcher and activist Alice Bell, and shorter interviews with FutureEverything CEO and founder Drew Hemment, Sonic Pi creator Sam Aaron, Hack Circus founder Leila Johnston and Data Artist Jer Thorp.
Zoe Pilger is an art critic for the Independent and won the 2011 Frieze International Writer's Prize. She is currently working on a PhD at Goldsmith's college. Eat My Heart Out is her first novel. Also this week, writer Frank Swain on Gattaca.
First broadcast on 22nd March 2014.
Christopher Bollen lives in New York City. He regularly writes about art, literature, and culture. He is the author of Lightning People and is currently the Editor at Large at Interview Magazine. His latest novel is Orient.
Susan Pinker is a developmental psychologist and award-winning newspaper columnist who writes about psychology and social science in the Globe and Mail. She has worked as a clinical psychologist for twenty-five years and has taught at McGill University in Montreal. Known for her progressive and thought-provoking work, her previous book The Sexual Paradox took an unflinching look at the gender gap. Her latest book is The Village Effect: Why Face-to-Face Contact Matters.
Gary Wilson is the presenter of the popular TEDx talk The Great Porn Experiment and hosts the website Your Brain on Porn, which was created for those seeking to understand and reverse compulsive porn use. He taught anatomy and physiology for years and has long been interested in the neurochemistry of addiction, mating and bonding. Gary Wilson is the author of the book Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction.
Susan Pinker portrait by Susie Lowe
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.
J. Courtney Sullivan is the author of the New York Times bestselling novels Commencement, Maine and The Engagements. Maine was named a Best Book of the Year by Time magazine, and a Washington Post Notable Book for 2011. The Engagements was one of People Magazine's Top Ten Books of 2013 and an Irish Times Best Book of the Year. It is soon to be a major motion picture produced by Reese Witherspoon. Courtney's writing has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, New York magazine, Elle, Glamour, Allure, Real Simple, and the New York Observer, among many others. She was a co-editor, with Courtney Martin, of the essay anthology Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists. Also this week, critic Robert Hanks talks about Comedians by Trevor Griffiths.
First broadcast on 18 January 2014.
Conor Woodman is an economist, author, film-maker and presenter. He is the author of Around the World in 80 Trades - which had an accompanying four-part television series for Channel 4. His most recent book was Unfair Trade: How Big Business Exploits the World's Poor - and Why it Doesn't Have to, which we discussed on a previous episode of Little Atoms. In this show we talk about Conor's TV series, Scam City, which is currently airing on Wednesday evenings at 8pm on the National Geographic Channel. Conor has been our guest on Little Atoms twice.
Coralie Colmez graduated with a First from Cambridge University in 2009, and now lives in London where she teaches and writes about mathematics. She belongs to the Bayes in Law Research Consortium, an international team devoted to improving the use of probability and statistics in criminal trials. Coralie is co-author along with her mother, the mathematician Leila Schneps, of Math on Trial: How Numbers Get Used and Abused in the Courtroom.
First broadcast on 24 May 2013.
Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine. His books include Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP), What's It All About? Philosophy and the Meaning of Life (Granta) and The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten and 99 Other Thought Experiments (Granta), Welcome to Everytown: A Journey into The English Mind (Granta) and Complaint (Profile).
His journalism has appeared in publications such as the Guardian, Independent, Times Higher Education Supplement, Times Education Supplement and the Sunday Herald. He is frequently heard on BBC radio in programmes including In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg, Off the Page and Nightwaves.