Environmental science obviously floats my boat, but for sheer drama and WTF, I go to the classics: physics, cosmology and maths. If you are also so inclined, then let me recommend the podcasts of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time: Science radio series. These are available on the BBC Iplayer Radio app. (Install this on your Android phone from the Google Play Store, open it and go to Radio 4, then Podcasts. Beats me what you do with an Apple phone. Go ask a Genius.)
Here you will find hundreds of podcasts, each featuring Melvyn guiding three guests (distinguished scientists and writers) in discussion on a wealth of science topics. For personalities, check out “Calculus” (Newton versus Leibniz); for history, “Euclid’s Elements”; for fun, “Pi”; for astonishing technology, “Gravitational Waves”; for genius, “Carl Friedrich Gauss”.
If you like a good science joke, listen to “Wolfgang Pauli”, who won the Nobel Prize for physics for the development of the exclusion principle. Pauli, who was famous for his obstinance, dies and “goes up to heaven and God says, oh Pauli, you were a great scientist, you can ask me one question and I will give you the answer to it. And so Pauli says, the question I want to know is, why 137?* And so God then starts describing how he created the universe and how the theories all work that lead to this. Pauli then says, no no, no, you’ve made a mistake… “.
Ha ha. By the way, I remember learning about Pauli’s exclusion principle in high school physics and not being particularly impressed by it. It seemed to me that he had just made something up that was convenient but kind of arbitrary. It is true that the principle is simple, but it is by no means obvious or arbitrary, as the podcast on Pauli explains.
For weirdness and profound mystery, you cannot beat “Matter and Anti-Matter”. Here is Frank Close, Professor of Physics at Oxford: “To me, it’s remarkable, I find it in a strange way quite uncomfortable. [British physicist Paul] Dirac is writing, scribbling things on a piece of paper, and the equations** say you can’t have an electron old boy, you’ve got to have a positive version as well, and the equations know that about nature. And then we go out and do an experiment and discover, that’s how it is. It’s a very profound, in some ways deeply disturbing, thing”. Yes, indeed.
I sometimes think that science advances in singular leaps by those rare people with true insight and creativity, with the rest of us tagging along, working around the edges and filling gaps. There certainly is that here, but also, when you listen to enough of these, you come to see that there is a web of knowledge with untold connections, contributions and cross-overs. By the way, this series is just the tip of the iceberg that is available on the BBC Iplayer Radio app.
Check it out, you won’t be disappointed.
Mal, 29 August 2019
*To some physicists, the number 137 is mystical. The reciprocal of (approximately) 137 is the value of the fine-structure constant which, loosely, “scales” matter and energy. The fine-structure constant is immutable and the same everywhere in the universe. Why 137? Why not, I suppose.
**The Dirac equation, which, amongst other things, predicts the existence of anti-matter, is sometimes called the “most beautiful equation in the world”. Professor Jim Al-Khalili of the University of Surrey, who frequently appears in these podcasts, calls it elegant, simple and very powerful.