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Six Reith Lectures to make you smarter

By Jim Frank, Reith Lectures producer

When so much of the information we consume comes from our social media snacking, the Reith Lectures provide a refreshing alternative: brilliant and entertaining presentations in which very clever people carefully develop their ideas and arguments.

There are so many thought-provoking Reith Lectures available online that it can be difficult to know where to start. So here are some suggestions for those of you who might find it helpful to have a steer:

1. The Emerging Mind

Vilayanur S Ramachandran’s series looks at how the brain works.

We’re naturally fascinated about our brains and Ramachandran is brilliantly informative and entertaining. The lectures are packed with ideas and insights.

Particularly recommended are: Synapses and the Self, where he explores consciousness and how we see; and the 4th lecture with the great title, Purple Numbers and Sharp Cheese where he discusses synaesthesia.

This series is guaranteed to make you smarter.

2. A Question of Trust

Very presciently, the formidable Cambridge academic Onora O’Neill looks at the issue of public trust.

We often hear people say we no longer trust our public services, institutions or the people who run them. Politicians, accountants, doctors, scientists, businessmen, and many others are treated with suspicion. Their word is doubted and their motives are questioned.

In this series from 2002, Onora O’Neill challenges the then approaches to accountability, investigates sources of deception in our society and re-examines questions of press freedom. Listen to lecture 1, Spreading Suspicion and lecture 3, Called to Account.

3. The End Of Age

Tom Kirkwood’s lecture series looks at the science of how we age and he argues that ageing is not inevitable.

Could science ever offer us immortality and if so, would we want it?

Start with lecture 1, Brave Old World, and then you must listen to Sex and Death.

Why do women live longer than men and does sex shorten our lives? How could you not listen to that?! Great themes and questions here.

4. Stephen Hawking on Black Holes

Staying with science, if you like an intellectual challenge, then Prof Stephen Hawking’s lectures on black holes are a must.

In his two lectures, Prof Hawking talks about his life-long work and deep fascination with black holes, outlining his theory that if we can properly understand them we may unlock the secrets of the Universe.

The programmes also have great Q&As with Prof Hawking and his audience –they remain one of the most memorable Reith recordings of recent years.

Black holes animation

The Black Hole

An animated explanation of black holes based on Stephen Hawking's Reith Lecture.

5. Terror

Here’s a rare opportunity to hear a former boss of the security services talking candidly and openly.

Eliza Manningham-Buller’s lectures are an insider’s account of the challenges of leading the security services in the aftermath of 9/11, including the subsequent London terror attack in July 2005.

How did she balance the need to ensure public safety against civil liberties?

Eliza Manningham-Buller expresses regret that it was not possible to stop the 7/7 attacks in London.

6. A New Citizenship

In these lectures, recorded in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008, Harvard professor Michael Sandel considers the expansion of markets and how we should determine their moral limits.

Should immigrants, for example, pay for citizenship? Should we pay school children for good test results, or even to read a book?

It’s a fascinating, timely series. Start with the lecture 1, Markets and Morals.