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In Our Time reaches 500

Thursday 3 March 2011, 08:00

Tom Morris Tom Morris

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On 15th October 1998 Melvyn Bragg welcomed listeners to a new Radio 4 programme called In Our Time. "In this series," he said, "I hope we'll look at the ideas and events which have shaped the century." The first subject was War in the Twentieth Century; Melvyn's guests were the military historian Sir Michael Howard and the writer (and now leader of the Canadian Liberal Party) Michael Ignatieff.

Thirteen years later, on March 10th, IOT will celebrate its 500th edition. In Our Time was originally produced by Olivia Seligman and she and Melvyn worked together on the format for the programme. It has changed quite a bit since those early days. In 2000 it was extended from half an hour to 45 minutes, and the original two guests became three. And the programme's original remit - to survey the key ideas of the 20th century- seemed a bit passé post-millennium; so Melvyn, Olivia and his then producer Charlie Taylor came up with the brilliantly simple formula that persists, a decade on.

I've been a fan since that first series, and many highlights still stick in my mind: a gripping account of the writing of the Encyclopedie; a lively discussion of Robin Hood, whose many surprises included Melvyn's on-air debut as a singer; and a fascinating programme about gravity and what causes it.

That diversity of subject matter has always been one of IOT's great strengths. Even the first few programmes included discussions of brain function, the nation state and attitudes to work. Melvyn Bragg, as one of the few people to have been made a Fellow of both the Royal Academy and the Royal Society, is as interested in science as he is in history and literature. Look back through previous IOT subjects and you'll find quantum physics rubbing shoulders with medieval philosophy, calculus with Egyptology.

When we came to plan the 500th programme, Melvyn and I were determined to show off that range as much as we could. So number 499 will look at the age of the universe - and the state of current knowledge of the subject - with a panel which includes the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees; the 500th examines one of the oldest problems of philosophy, Free Will (are we free to act as we choose?); and the 501st will look at the medieval universities and the tremendous influence they exerted on European intellectual life.

One of the great joys of taking over as producer of In Our Time a year ago was browsing the archive (every programme is available on our website) and finding juicy subjects the programme had never covered. Here was a great excuse to learn more about Pliny's Natural History, random numbers and Foxe's Book of Martyrs. So on the list they went; and thus our current run of programmes reflects my interests, as it does Melvyn's and those of our contributors.

In future weeks we'll be covering subjects including Hinduism, the Iron Age and neutrino physics. But, as I quickly discovered, we've still barely scratched the surface of several millennia of human endeavour. So we'd love to know what subjects you think we should discuss - and also what your highlights of the last 499 programmes have been. Please do make your suggestions - either by submitting a comment below or on Twitter, using the hashtag #IOT500.

Tom Morris is producer of In Our Time

  • As Tom points out, you can listen to the whole In Our Time archive on the Radio 4 web site - the largest programme archive at the BBC.
  • Get In Our Time delivered to your computer automatically every week - sign up for the In Our Time podcast.
  • Sign up for the free In Our Time newsletter - a rather clever and often very funny weekly update written by Melvyn Bragg - often while he's crossing St James's Park on the way to the office.
  • In The Guardian, Radio reviewer Elisabeth Mahoney asks "Is In Our Time Radio 4's best programme?"

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    Comment number 1.

    The best programme on the radio, loved all 498 episodes so far. Thanks to everyone.

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    Comment number 2.

    I also think it's the best programme on the radio. My favourite (currently) is the Calvin espisode.

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    Comment number 3.

    Have worried before about BBC's poor science presentation - not perhaps "poor", just little of it. M.Bragg today redresses the balance a little. "In Our Time" today had excellent speakers - cogent, clear, eloquent. Brilliant programme. I shall listen to the repeat tonight, and not because I didn't understand it the first time!
    Future topics of interest to me (and probably nobody else); 1. early history of steam power (Liebig, Savory onwards)2. civil war in Rome - the end of the republic 3. Prussia's mid-19th cent. wars. 4. Garibaldi.

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    Comment number 4.

    Ditto, one of the very best programmes on the airwaves. Hard to choose a favourite, perhaps Godel's Incompleteness Theorem or the Origins of Life or Byzantium.

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    Comment number 5.

    My suggestion for a future program:

    Compassion as core condition in many religions/faiths/ humanistic beliefs.Finding this common ground without reducing the value of each belief's contribution in each system or culture.

    See Karen Anderson Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.

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    Comment number 6.

    If next week is the 500th programme, why are there 501 available on the website?

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    Comment number 7.

    Dear 'In Our Time',

    You asked for suggestions for topics in today's programme (March 3rd).

    May I suggest the topic of 'hygiene, purity and cleanliness'? These are three names for one process - cleansing.

    This is something which affects all of us, and our bodies - otherwise we would die. It also affects all other animals. It cannot be applied to plants, but can be applied to minerals. In humans it is a biological process, yet at the same time it is a set of cultural or behavioural mores as well. It is a psychology; and a philosophy. The medical philosophy of hygiene has dominated all of our lives during the 20th century, and has become part of the philosophy of 'well-being' in the 21st century.

    Cleansing is responsible for political atrocities (in the sense of the political 'purge' or 'ethnic cleansing'). It also keeps us alive on a day to day basis (through our evacuations), and keeps our bodies trim and beautiful (through daily grooming). It underpins one of the world's largest and oldest industries - home and body cleansing (cosmetic) products.

    The fact that I have written a book on this need not be used for special pleading! My point is mainly that it is a huge part of our lives which - until recently - we knew very little about, and took entirely for granted. It seems to be a suitably broad topic for 'In Our Time', and it would be great to see it aired.
    Yours sincerely,
    Virginia Smith

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 9.

    I enjoy the program and have looked through the archives for something about earthquakes and the gravitational effects of, particularly, the sun and moon on the earth's surface. It seems to me that if the sun and moon can effect tides as much as they do then they could also put stress on the earths crust which in certain circumstances could induce eathquakes where that stress coincides with faults.
    A Google search for eathquakes and eclipse throws-up a lot of astrological and semi-religious belief about predictions of impending catastrophe but not much scientific research - are the scientists afraid of being labelled as loonies if they look for a connection? Is this a case of seismologists and astronomers and physicists not working together?
    At times of a solar eclipse or near eclipse (full moon and or new moon??)the sun and moon pull in the same direction, this will have a different effect to the sun and moon pulling against each other at times of a near lunar eclipse. Does the maximum stress occur at the point where the eclipse is observed, or at the circumference halfway round the world, or somewhere in between?
    As we approach and leave an eclipse or near eclipse can there be a 'stress and relax' effect, every 24 hours as the world turns, which adds to the chance of an earthquake?
    Is there any data analysis mapping the occurance of earhquakes to eclipses?

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    Comment number 10.

    Dear Tom Morris,

    Suggestions for future In Our Time Programmes.

    May I suggest a subject which is paradoxical in the extreme? I speak of a 50 year old, proven technology which can solve many of the worst problems facing humankind, including the cessation of anthropogenic greenhouse gasses emissions and mitigation of population growth.

    Experimentation into this technology in the USA, in the early 1950s, revealed that it was militarily ineffective and thereafter, research and development was done on shoestring financing, with low-key attention to the enormity of the potential benefits in the civilian sphere. Even though operational units were producing results which gave rise to great optimism, all work ceased in the early 70’s and all that remained was a paper archive, recording what had been achieved and what the future could hold.

    This paper goldmine gathered dust for 30 years, when it was unearthed by an Indiana Jones figure, who poured over every word and discovered a story of political/military in-fighting. The winners went on to give us the world we have today and the losers lost the opportunity to have prevented the past 50 years of escalating greenhouse gasses emissions.

    Within the past month, the Chinese have announced their intentions to pursue this technology through a programme of manufacture, and claim all of the associated intellectual property. In the UK, the economics of meeting our future energy needs and carbon targets by using this technology, could be so compelling that we might well be importing Chinese-made units by the container ship full, within a couple of decades.

    I’m absolutely convinced this subject would be a perfect topic for In Our Time, with Kirk (Indiana) Sorensen being able to describe the rediscovery of the work done by Eugene Wigner and Alvin Weinberg, at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and their dedication to the promotion of the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR).

    With sufficient thorium available to fuel the energy needs of everyone on the planet for thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years, at developed-world standards, LFTRs effectively give us all of the benefits of energy from fusion now. The effect LFTRs can have on the future of humankind is immeasurable and hardly anyone knows about it. In Our Time revelations would go a long way to remedying this.


    Colin Megson.

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    Comment number 11.

    Happy 500th episode IOT. I have podcast the programme for the last few years and have almost caught up on the full archive. Congratulations to everyone involved for bringing us such fascinating and diverse subject mater each week. Big salute to Tom and Melvyn. Can I request a programme on Samuel Pepys? He's been mentioned in a few of the programmes but the latest research on his life, diary and what he's contributed to our knowledge of the age he lived would be sensational. I particularly enjoy Melvyns newsletter, and his personal news of adventures around London. Last time I was there I visited the ducks in St James park in his honour.
    Looking forward to the next 500 programmes very much. Claudia, Melbourne.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    You asked for suggestions for future programmes for "In Our Time".

    Please can I hope that there will be at least one "In Our Time" to remember Danish attacks on England, and in particular Canterbury, a thousand years ago.

    The Danes besieged Canterbury from, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us, the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary to Michaelmas Day 1011, that's 8th. - 29th. September 1011 in today's thinking. At the end of the siege, the City was sacked, including the Cathedral and its clergy as well as the city. It must have been a dreadful event. The Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Alphege, was taken prisoner, which brings us to the other millennium coming up: -

    On April 19th, 1012 St. Alphege was martyred by the Danes at Greenwich, by being pelted with ox bones. The Danes had already demand £48,000 for the Kingdom of England; but St. Alphege refused to let an extra £3,000 be paid for his personal ransom. So he was killed.

    The Danes are long forgiven, because King Knut (Canute) converted to Christianity after he became King of both England and Denmark.

    The various Anglican churches dedicated to St. Alphege will be holding events on 19th. April 2012, or more probably the following Sunday. There is going to be a pilgrimage service at Canterbury Cathedral on 9 June 2012. Details of the Church's plans to remember the millennium of St. Alphege's death can be found at http://www.stalphege.com. However, my personal experience is that even when I tell people with no particular religious belief about the coming millennium of St. Alphege's death, they spontaneously see relevance of his refusal to be ransomed to the current economic state of England.

    From "In Our Time"'s point of view, it is a useful coincidence that 8th. September 2011, 29th. September 2011 and 19th. April 2012 are all Thursdays.

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    Comment number 13.

    IOT is an excellent programme that I cannot praise too highly. This morning's programme on the age of the Universe was superb. Two requests:

    (a) How about something on "The Thirty Years War", which I don't think you have covered.

    (b) I'd love to be able to download all 499 previous episodes, rather than just the last few. As far as I can see, that isn't possible yet. Will it ever be?

    David Love

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    Comment number 14.

    Hurrah for IOT at 500 episodes, a bastion of good BBC broadcasting!

    I'd personally like to hear an eposide on the Occult studies of Sir Isaac Newton, with paticular regard to his works on the temple of Solomon, and attempts at interpreting biblical prophecy, as well as rumoured accounts of Newton's search for various alchemical substances-notably the philosopher's stone.

    Keep up the good work Melvyn and co!

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    Comment number 15.

    A suggested future topic-------------The history of anti-semitism.

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    Comment number 16.

    Dear IOT

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    Comment number 17.

    Dear IOT,

    I am proud to say I have tried to listen every week since the beginning of the broadcast, I would like to make a few suggestions for programs:

    1. Language change
    2. Proto Indo-European
    3. William Labov/ North American English
    4. Three domain classification of life (Archaea, Bacteria, Eukaryota)
    5. Language isolates (languages not seen to be related to any others)
    6. Our nearest stellar neighbors (solar neighborhood) beyond the Sun.
    7. Game Theory
    8. Taxonomy (Linnaean, Post-Linnean)

    Thank you so much for many ours of knowledge and yes, entertainment, Melvin, you and your staff keep up the excellent work.

    Thank you
    Alan K

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    Comment number 18.

    Congratulations to Melvyn and the team for one of the best programmes on either TV or Radio. The fluidity, and lucidity, of the discussion on this mornings programme about the age of the universe was in marked contract to the shrill lack of reason on 'Thought for the day' which preceded it.

    My suggestion for a future programme would be to discuss why the BBC insists on persevering with Thought for the Day when it is based on unverifiable fantasy?

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    Comment number 19.

    I'm a regular listener to In Our Time and I would like to suggest a programme dedicated to a human-evolutionary, i.e. Darwinian, view of human nature and how it has shaped the power structures (social, political and economic) of human civilisations, especially our own.

    It's an approach to understanding human society which, as far as I'm aware, has been pretty much neglected, partly because of taboos relating to social Darwinism, but also, I believe, because it would expose some very inconvenient truths about our own society, including the state, which is the employer of the very academics (evolutionary biologists, anthropologists and psychologists) in whose fields of competence such studies would fall.

    I've taking just such an approach myself and come to some quite startling insights, which I would very much like to hear Melvyn discuss with competent academics.

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    Comment number 20.

    A cordial invitation on behalf of the National Trust to discuss the unique yeoman farmer's library at Townend, an ancient stone farmhouse at Troutbeck, near Windermere, and the world of popular reading and vernacular culture in early modern Cumbria. Assembled by a single family between the 1590s and the 1940s, the library, of just over 1000 books, is an astonishing window into the past: happy to provide more information, and hope it might tickle Melvyn's fancy.

    Mark Purcell
    Libraries Curator
    The National Trust


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