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Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed photosynthesis. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss photosynthesis.


A couple of things from the conversation after the programme. I think it was John Allen who said that the United States aerospace industry is giving quite substantial support to research into photosynthesis. The reason that NASA is interested is because they are looking for ways in which they can identify on the surface of planets what may be the origins of life as we know it. Seems a terrifically oblique way to subsidise science, but in my view, the more oblique the better. John ended the programme with a wonderful quotation from Priestley about the practical discovery of photosynthesis. It was, he said, as a result of Priestley’s curiosity. All of Priestley’s research was curiosity-driven. Again and again research has been curiosity-driven.

I’ve picked up from academics over the past few years a feeling, sometimes of sadness, sometimes approaching despair, that that sort of research – i.e. intellectual curiosity, knowledge for the sake of knowledge – is not in favour at the moment. Why on earth have we become a box-ticking, bureaucratic, over-managed society wherever you look? Why don’t we follow the talent, instead of (as in the case of universities and elsewhere) driving the talent out because of ways of managing which only make sense in some sterile boardroom, in some godforsaken place inside the M25? Answers on a postcard.

Okay, what next? Well, I’m going to the annual conference of the Reader Organisation at the British Library this afternoon, run by Jane Davis who’s established a substantial centre for readers in Liverpool, and this is a day where I’ll be talking on the theme of dementia in fiction. In between trying to walk carefully through sunny London. Carefully, after a sedative yesterday for the yanking out of back teeth in upper jaw right, which has left me feeling sore and groggy and … what was the subject we talked about this morning?

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

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  • Comment number 13. Posted by Lawrence Jones

    on 24 May 2014 13:00

    P.S. Sorry if this is off topic, but what about an edition of IOT devoted to the rise and fall of ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries)? It would be easy to assemble an interesting/knowledgeable panel and the history of ICI’s developments (petrol from coal etc) and discoveries would, I believe, make for a fascinating radio programme.

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  • Comment number 12. Posted by All for All

    on 22 May 2014 05:54

    Rather as the sun pours upon us energy that at first sight might seem to ensure the desiccation of any exposed life-form, so the drive to survive might naively be expected to ensure our destruction through competitive violence. Happily, some energy is 'saved' and turned to life's advantage, with photosynthesis first in water then on land, and co-operation first in simple hierarchy now towards democracy.

    How long before we have photosynthesis in full service, taking advantage of even the driest climates, optimising yields of food and fuel and chemical variety? How long before we have full democracy, all in every sphere and outpost representative of all, the rule of conscience replacing that of fear and greed?

    Without good understanding of the potential of democracy, the question might appear rhetorical of how to reform a social system such as ours, so badly failing in its political representation of true interests, and with such deep entrenchment of economic incentive against meaningful change.

    Even without the distractions of staying alive, and being trivially entertained and assailed by propaganda, the reaching and the maintenance of even a basic level of public understanding - and so of trust - would require high moral effort on the part of those who from their ability most easily might take petty advantage of ignorant others.

    It is only from faith in our evolved capacity, in the natural shareability of arguments for real democracy, that hope can be held for ambition wide-enough and strong enough, such that enough of the able might commit to education for democracy. Though our recent history tells of concerted mischief and of atrocity near beyond belief, often from those most trusted and by office empowered, our hopes are part of the balance towards our reaching civilisation, for socialisation of real viability, beyond mere centuries or millennia.

    Will our hopes be strong enough to meet the burden, initially so high, in vital persuasion by the few of the many, against the indulgence of paranoid instincts, against the following or emulation of false heroes, for our survival as 'deserved'?

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  • Comment number 11. Posted by Peter

    on 21 May 2014 21:11

    For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Romans 1:20

    Thank you those who have commented re my entry @3
    A self-replicating molecule - DNA-RNA- protein-DNA-RNA- protein so many errors that transmission of information is irrelevant. Where is it heading?
    Why bring in proteins anyway with all the codes and t-RNA
    To achieve a living cell able to grow, respond, feed, respire, replicate… etc Each step having a survival edge? May be in a computer game – perhaps, but in a puddle or a chemical soup. A progression in these circumstances is a fairy story orders of magnitude more improbable than the ‘frog to prince’ variety.
    Agreed belief or non-belief does not alter the scientific method, but the motivation and intent is also significant. Thank you to all science in bringing us a greater awareness of how awesome our creator is.

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  • Comment number 10. Posted by Steve

    on 21 May 2014 15:46

    I found this particular programme a superb presentation by Mr Bragg and his co-presenters. Everything seemed so clearly and simply explained. I was truly informed and genuinely learnt something. Well done.

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  • Comment number 9. Posted by All for All

    on 19 May 2014 17:55

    Ivesian @7

    Sorry to have troubled you so with AfA@6. Perhaps I should have paid more heed to your name? Thanks for the stimulus to a little research, not entirely fruitless.

    A hunch can be vital, and so too passion, in the pursuit of truth. The philosopher the subject of David Ive's play 'New Jerusalem', went too far for his co-religionists in 17th century Amsterdam. Following and moving-on from the footsteps of his teacher the radical democrat Franciscus van den Enden (1602-1674), Ive's subject Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) received harsh censure in his expulsion from the Talmud Torah congregation. Wiki tells, "Spinoza argued that God exists and is abstract and impersonal."

    "As his Essays Before a Sonata makes clear, Ives regarded music as, to paraphrase Clauswitz, philosophy carried on by other means - not just any philosophy either, but the discursive style practiced by Emerson, Thoreau, and Carlyle. Ives apparently inherited many notions from Transcendentalism, chief among them, the imminence of God in Nature. In his late writings especially, Thoreau felt that the more accurately you could describe natural phenomena, the closer you came to writing theology because you would then reveal celestial design."

    Of Herbert Eugene Ives (1882-1953) it has been written: 'his criticisms of the special theory of relativity were always on the highest level of scholarly discourse', and though his 'ether-based theory of matter in motion was never developed to the point where it could be seriously considered as an alternative to the special relativity theory', he did find an error in Einstein's first derivation of mass-energy equivalence (a derivation already superseded by Einstein and others).


    While Peter @3 is ready to infer from complexity (as if any existence were not enough) more than the possibility of a 'designer', one impelled by love and one we might somehow 'meet', you @5 take your ruler and calculator into the universe to replicate all of nature, with but one small omission: consciousness, 'measurable' only in faith from our own, inferred in others, by some inferred in the cosmos. Humility in interpretation, like readiness in a cause, is all.

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  • Comment number 8. Posted by AmbroseH

    on 19 May 2014 17:40

    The answer on a postcard, maybe an A5 one, is related to the question you asked, Melvin, after the programme about Bishop Berkeley. You said, ‘well what is an idea?’ The source of human intellect and intellectual curiosity is provided by our ability to enter a mental ‘space’ of possibility, and this is where our ideas have their being. This is possibility in general, not the imagining or remembering specific cases like Priestly’s. It is the source of our ability to ask questions, and to distinguish between truth and error. Vaclav Harvel entitled his book ‘Living in Truth’ because in it he uncovered the tissue of lies upon which Soviet Communism relied. Our human intelligence always allows us to see the holistic property of truth and the contradiction(s) always involved and hidden in lies.What is possible, logically, is always possible and reality cannot alter it. Things in reality like physical matter and its behaviour is measured in terms of probability. In the 'logical space' of our intelligence we can make necessary distinctions like that something is 'necessary but not sufficient'. Our ideas have this infinite open space which is therefore also the source of our ability to make critical judgements and examine and question the events which our senses detect in reality.

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  • Comment number 7. Posted by Ivesian

    on 19 May 2014 12:57

    @All for All

    I've read and re-read your response but beyond the first sentence I find only incoherence. Did you create your answer using one of those automated postmodern word generators? Or perhaps English isn't your first language. You're very good at stringing words together at some length while brilliantly managing to avoid creating meaningful sentences; are you perhaps a theologian?

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  • Comment number 6. Posted by All for All

    on 19 May 2014 07:33

    Ivesian @5

    Of Peter's 'designer', his God with 'amazing power and purpose', holding us 'accountable' at least to love, you ask: "How do you know all this?

    Little can we 'know' absolutely: that we partake of existence, of reason (we might think, and think to test) and of care (to act or not as we choose, to care about what in whatever terms is seen or possessed already or is dreamt of).

    Further 'knowledge', if developed alone (without the idea or awareness of other similar-enough material and 'spiritual' entities) might be 'purely scientific', our care in the pursuit of reason, for our survival, profit and pleasure: "Why not?" However, even in such isolation, perhaps even more so in isolation, ascription of personality might 'naturally' be shared between inner and outer worlds, between that which generates thought and feeling and bodily action as if 'ours', and that which by its 'providence' and changes so much shapes what is 'generated', really 'ours?'

    To reach the slopes of contextual awareness (and the minefield of misconception) - of existence within parameters all pre-existent, of each personal existence and every second of it however similar in fact unique - most of us have the stimulus of human company, our self-consciousness in differentiation from similar others soon followed by awareness of similarity, with - in varying developing degrees - empathy. Our 'knowledge' takes a leap of faith, our existence 'making more sense' if we treat each other as equally 'real' with respect at least to consciousness (though capable of automaton-states), all with some attachment to reason (though in process and purpose subject to corruption), and care (though in 1-3% little or cold, hard-wired as psycho-sociopathic).

    What are we to make of 'our context', this realm of potentiality that but for its infinite extent (and our own presence) might have existed 'forever without us', without any consciousness such as ours? If that context is conceived of as a single entity, does it have more than 'dimensionality'? Is there a realm of 'dimensionality' beyond this so vast and solid world, one of potential to create, of choice to create, of love to create, or of just fondness for Big Bangs? Preposterous 'of course' - we now say - the idea of a bearded old man (of Highest Quality) sitting on a cloud beyond the Plough: but even if there is no biddable and humanly jealous god, to be met in this world or the next (none to command the sacrifice of any lamb or first-born, still less the abdication of reason or responsibility), can our context be less wonderful, with due care less 'providentially instructive', than our highest imaginative personalisations?

    Abstract, faith in good? Too problematic our definition of good, in corrupted politics, in fossilised religion, in philosophy without care? What 'makes more sense'?

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  • Comment number 5. Posted by Ivesian

    on 18 May 2014 19:21


    Citing the fact that some scientists are/were religious is irrelevant to the success of their scientific achievements, which are accepted because of the naturalistic principles of observation, inference etc. which underpin the scientific method, and which are universally understandable regardless of an individual's religious persuasion.

    Intelligent Design (and Irreducible Complexity) is simply primitive Creationism by another name, the refuge of those who can't seem to get their minds around how evolution works; how intricate biological mechanisms could have arisen by a sequence of steps through natural processes, and how each step may be functional in of itself regardless of the 'ultimate' mechanism it may be observed to be part of by us.

    The fact we use the word 'design' when discussing biological mechanisms is simply a hangover of language which has evolved for the most part in a world of religious belief, but it is instructive to actually compare natural 'designs' with man-made designs: natural processes can be shown to have evolved through natural selection, and where they appear convoluted or when they fail (the path of the recurrent laryngeal nerve, to pick a famous example) only makes sense in light of evolution; man-made designs are able to start from scratch and avoid such oddities, and where they fail it might be because of unforeseen side-effects (effects which in a biological equivalent could be sieved out through the evolutionary filter) which are immediately rectified in a way which not only preserves the same functionality but which simply couldn't happen within evolution (changing one metal for a better one in an engine, for example).

    Science has peeled back more and more layers of understanding over centuries, right down to the most fundamental and counter-intuitive theories of matter and energy - if you want to ask the question of who created the tiniest particles and building-blocks of existence fine, but you're positing a very abstract deist conception of a creator far removed from that of religion. And it's very interesting how you go from your perception of design to some quite extraordinary claims about the nature of God, his intentions, his opinions; how do you know all this exactly?

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by All for All

    on 18 May 2014 08:25

    For some the book of life seems found open, but for most of us most of the time, little thought is manifest beyond that presented by everyday culture, filtered what clues might be presented to our senses. We live thus by the simple ambitions of livelihood and family, any further awareness of the potentials and dangers of life, of this universe, only from commercial entertainment, religious enclosure, political manipulation and dead-end drug abuse. Our real needs to be satisfied for survival and prosperity and delight, the adventures to be entertained for ourselves towards those ends, all for most are lost, as if in a closed book used as door-stop. A better simile perhaps the encyclopaedia-set never to be un-boxed, its secrets beyond suspicion of existence, to be sat-upon until death do us part.

    It seems likely, if we indulge in prophecy, that - happily or not - our collective end, as threatened, untimely as unnecessary, until the last moments of the last generation will by most hardly be seen coming. It is not that the book of life will never be flicked through by those with leisure, even seized upon for earnest study by a few with the wit and material means in private fortune or under the wing of power: but until and unless we find the page that unlocks hope for all, that enables rich and poor to see each other as people with whom to be in partnership, risk will remain of perishing at our own hands, in neglect and conflict, from overflowing ignorance, hatred and contagion.

    Warning has been given before, heard and recalled and embellished in terms that have precluded modern heed, the pre-scientific future conceived of as beyond this world, our time here but a test and preparation. So, in immediate necessity we have struggled against evil at its worst, but in general we have lived with its appeasement, in effect complicit with its works. There is no surprise, or should be none, in the long persistence of material inequality and of its ills (the rise and fall of indices a nice distraction), given that the world's capital is dedicated not for us but to its own concentration, new momentum given to the process by its lottery custodians, beneficiaries of rules that all inherit and 'they' encourage us to protect.

    Far from being educated for democracy, for equal partnership, we are by naked power and the manipulation of such as our owned press and political parties, all from top to bottom kept subject to the rule of fear and greed. The possibility of Eden long ago known, Heaven on Earth beyond doubt fully supportable, we live nevertheless at best in sham democracy, in degrees of detachment, humanity in suffering and horror, witness or victim all in a sense witless perpetrators.

    In photosynthesis we are reminded that in the death of stars yet there is life: in evolution though, whole species and even planets (as homes) may disappear.

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