Thursday 23 November 2017

Radio: Clever little monkeys are just the job

Floppy-haired scientist Brian Cox.
Floppy-haired scientist Brian Cox.
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

"The universe: what remains to be discovered?" Well I don't know for sure, but there's a hell of a programme title.

Science show The Infinite Monkey Cage (BBC Radio 4, Mon 4pm) took to the road - specifically, the recent Blue Dot Festival at Jodrell Bank Observatory in the University of Manchester - to wrap lips and minds around that doozy of a question.

Regular hosts Brian Cox (former pop star, current physics star) and Robin Ince were joined by boffins Paul Abel and Tim O'Brien, singer Charlotte Church and actor Ben Miller. And while they started with that poser, this was really more of an erudite, invigorating ramble across various topics, like the best parts of this great programme tend to be.

O'Brien explained how he and his team had made a dance track out of the rhythmic thud of pulsars - a rotating neutron star in deep space, apparently. This led to mention of Jocelyn Bell Burnell, surely the greatest modern-day Irish scientist, who discovered pulsars as a young doctoral student.

We found out that quantum mechanics and general relativity are both used in daily life and technology - phones and satnav - but they differ on the fundamental nature of space-time, a cosmological contradiction that I absolutely love. We also learned that time travel is impossible because the speed of light is fixed… except you can actually bend time in curved space-time… but that's not "a stable solution". I'd imagine not.

They estimated the likelihood of meeting other civilisations, and Church explained how she loves physics because "it's fascinating how odd a lot of the universe is".

Great stuff, and often funny - rather like a radio version of Stephen Fry's QI, but without the vague undertones of smugness from some of Fry's guests. Ince quipped about Cox, who'd burned his mouth on festival food: "He understands the heat death of universe, but not the cooling speed of a pie."

Bishop Edward Daly died this week. He became famous as the priest holding a white handkerchief, as he tried to get a wounded man to the ambulance, during Bloody Sunday in 1972, and was remembered on Today with Sean O'Rourke (Radio 1, Mon-Fri 10am).

Civil Rights activist - and current member of the Northern Ireland Assembly - Eamonn McCann recounted to stand-in Keelin Shanley how he was attending that ill-fated demonstration when "the Paras erupted into the area and started shooting. Fr Daly was running from the paras when a young man - Jackie Duddy - was shot dead. He knelt over him, and later of course, helped to carry his body to an ambulance.

That picture, he added, "of him waving the white handkerchief became one of the defining photographs of Bloody Sunday - a terrifically influential and immediate analysis of events. A very telling picture indeed."

Loads of Olympics stuff these times, of course, particularly on Radio 1, which has very extensive coverage. I wasn't sure that the mixture of music and sport would work that well on programmes like Late Date (Sun-Sat 11pm) or an extended John Creedon Show (Mon-Fri 8pm), but it's proving a nice blend - not too much of either. And a nice touch in some titles of the songs selected: 'Rio', 'Corcovado', 'The Boxer'.

I also very much enjoyed this week's round-up of the Sunday sports pages on Off the Ball (Newstalk, Sun 12pm), mostly because Gary O'Toole is great to listen to. Literally: he has such a pleasant speaking voice (handy in a doctor, one assumes).

And he's smart, perceptive, articulate and generally dead on. More of this man on radio, please.

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