“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
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.”
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.
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.
Alex Bellos is the bestselling author of Alex's Adventures in Numberland, which was shortlisted for the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize. In 2002 he wrote a critically acclaimed book about Brazilian football, and in 2006 he ghost-wrote Pele's autobiography, which was a number one bestseller. He is the Guardian's maths-blogger, and has worked for the paper in London and Rio de Janeiro as its unusually numerate foreign correspondent. He is a curator-in-residence at the Science Museum and has a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy from the University of Oxford. His Latest book is Alex Through the Looking-Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life. Alex has been my guest on Little Atoms twice.
Interview one first broadcast on 17th September 2010.
Interview two first broadcast on 24th May 2014.
Professor Brian Cox is a particle physicist, a Royal Society research fellow, and a professor at the University of Manchester. He is a member of the High Energy Physics group at the University of Manchester, and works on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider, CERN near Geneva, Switzerland. He is also working on the FP420 R&D project in an international collaboration to upgrade the ATLAS and the CMS experiment by installing additional, smaller detectors at a distance of 420 metres from the interaction points of the main experiments. He is best known to the public as the presenter of a number of science programmes for the BBC, most recently Seven Wonders of the Solar System, due for broadcast in March 2010. Brian has co-authored a book with Jeff Forshaw, Why Does E=MC2 (and Why Should We Care?).
First broadcast on 8th January 2010.
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.
Professor David Colquhoun, FRS, held the established (A.J. Clark) chair of Pharmacology at UCL, and was the Hon. Director of the Wellcome Laboratory for Molecular Pharmacology. In October 2004, he became a Research Fellow. Like many previous holders of the chair (in particular, A.J. Clark, J.H. Gaddum, H.O. Schild and J.W. Black) his interests are in quantitative analysis of receptor mechanisms.
He graduated from Leeds with a BSc and then went to Edinburgh to work for a PhD. After doing research at University College from 1964-69 on immunological problems and completing a book on statistics, he went to Yale University to work on nerve conduction. After returning from the USA he eventually returned to the Pharmacology Department at UCL in 1979, and has worked on single ion channel mechanisms since then. In 2004, he was made an Honorary Fellow of University College London.
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.
Arthur I Miller is a professor emeritus of history and philosophy of science at University College London. He is the author of several acclaimed books, the most recent of which are Einstein, Picasso, and Empire of the Stars, which was shortlisted for the 2006 Aventis Prize for Science Books. An experienced broadcaster, lecturer and biographer, he is particularly interested in the relationship between science and creativity, and noted for being able to write engagingly about complex social and intellectual dramas, weaving the personal with the scientific to produce page-turners that read like novels. Arthur's latest book is 137: Jung, Pauli and the pursuit of a Scientific Obsession.
First broadcast on 13th August 2010.
Alom Shaha was born in Bangladesh but grew up in London. A teacher, writer and filmmaker, he has spent most of his professional life trying to share his passion for science and education with the public. Alom has produced, directed and appeared in a number of television programmes, and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (NESTA) and the Nuffield Foundation. Alom has represented the community in which he grew up as an elected politician and volunteered at a range of charitable organisations. He teaches at a comprehensive school in London and writes for a number of print and online publications including The Guardian. Alom is the author of The Young Atheist's Handbook.
First broadcast on 20th July 2012.
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.
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
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
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.
Rebecca Skloot is a science writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Discover, and many other publications. She is the guest editor of The Best American Science Writing 2011, a contributing editor at Popular Science magazine, and has worked as a correspondent for WNYC’s Radiolab and PBS’s Nova ScienceNOW.
Skloot served for eight years on the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle, where she was a vice president and judge for their yearly book awards. She has a B.S. in biological sciences and an MFA in creative nonfiction. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, her debut book, took more than a decade to research and write, and instantly became a New York Times best-seller.
John Lanchester is the author of Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay.
As a journalist and novelist, he was winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award for his debut The Debt to Pleasure.
John’s article on our love affair with the City,Cityphilia generated much response on its publication in January 2008, and indeed predicted a worldwide crash based on the misuse of financial derivatives.
First broadcast 15 April 2011
Filmmaker Adam Curtis discusses power, politics and his searing cybernetic vision of the future.
The notion of cybernetics looks at the whole world, from society to cells, as systems. For Curtis, it is a highly political ideology whereby systems of nature and systems of computers have become intertwined.
“It’s a beautiful vision of this interconnected world, resonant of the cyber-utopian mood of our time, bleeding into nature”.
Curtis sees the increasing salience of cybernetics as a fundamental shift in the way we view human beings.
“We are moving away from the old enlightenment idea than human beings are separate, above the rest of the world and can shape and bend the world. In fact we are all components in systems of an interwoven network where everyone is connected”.
In this connected world, Curtis argues democracy is not about lots of individuals, but about mediating the powerful. Regulating those who often use their unequal access to power at the expense of the weak.
“It’s about electing people who will stand up and represent the weak and negotiate against the powerful. All evidence in western society shows power becoming more concentrated and unequal.”
First broadcast 20/05/11
Ian McEwan discusses his climate change and his novel Solar
McEwan dismisses the idea that virtuous living will solve climate change. He argues our fuel deficit can only be filled by an alternative energy source.
“Our ingenuity got us into this; it was clever to replace human labour with machines and fossil fuel. Our cleverness will have to get us out.”
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.”
“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”.
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.
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
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.
Lynsey Addario is an American photojournalist whose work appears regularly in The New York Times, National Geographic, and Time Magazine. She has covered conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Darfur and the Congo, and has received numerous awards, including the MacArthur Genius Grant and the Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting. She is the author of It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.