Logical Positivism

Duration: 45 minutes
First broadcast: Thursday 02 July 2009

Melvyn Bragg discusses Logical Positivism, the eye-wateringly radical early 20th century philosophical movement.

The Logical Positivists argued that much previous philosophy was built on very shaky foundations, and they wanted to go right back to the drawing board. They insisted that philosophy – and science – had to be much more rigorous before it started making grand claims about the world.

The movement began with the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophically-trained scientists and scientifically-trained philosophers, who met on Thursdays, in ‘Red Vienna’, in the years after the First World War. They were trying to remould philosophy in a world turned upside down not just by war, but by major advances in science. Their hero was not Descartes or Hegel but Albert Einstein.

The group’s new doctrine rejected great swathes of earlier philosophy, from meditations on the existence of God to declarations on the nature of History, as utterly meaningless. When the Nazis took power, they fled to England and America, where their ideas put down new roots, and went on to have a profound impact.

Melvyn is joined by Barry Smith, Professor of Philosophy at the University of London; Nancy Cartwright, Professor of Philosophy at the London School of Economics; and Thomas Uebel, Professor of Philosophy at Manchester University.

The Vacuum of Space

Duration: 45 minutes
First broadcast: Thursday 30 April 2009

Melvyn Bragg and guests Frank Close, Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Ruth Gregory discuss the Vacuum of Space.

The idea that there is a nothingness at the heart of nature has exercised philosophers and scientists for millennia, from Thales’s belief that all matter was water to Newton’s concept of the Ether and Einstein’s idea of Space-Time. Recently, physicists have realised that the vacuum is not as empty as we thought and that the various vacuums of nature vibrate with forces and energies, waves and particles and the mysterious phenomena of the Higgs field and dark energy

Baconian Science

Duration: 45 minutes
First broadcast: Thursday 02 April 2009

Patricia Fara, Stephen Pumfrey and Rhodri Lewis join Melvyn Bragg to discuss the Jacobean lawyer, political fixer and alleged founder of modern science Francis Bacon.

In the introduction to Thomas Spratt’s History of the Royal Society, there is a poem about man called Francis Bacon which declares ‘Bacon, like Moses, led us forth at last, The barren wilderness he past, Did on the very border stand Of the blest promis’d land, And from the mountain’s top of his exalted wit, Saw it himself, and shew’d us it’.

Francis Bacon was a lawyer and political schemer who climbed the greasy pole of Jacobean politics and then fell down it again. But he is most famous for developing an idea of how science should be done – a method that he hoped would slough off the husk of ancient thinking and usher in a new age. It is called Baconian Method and it has influenced and inspired scientists from Bacon’s own time to the present day.

The Physics of Time

Duration: 45 minutes
First broadcast: Thursday 18 December 2008

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the physics of time. When writing the Principia Mathematica, Isaac Newton declared his hand on most of the big questions in physics. He outlined the nature of space, explained the motions of the planets and conceived the operation of gravity. He also laid down the law on time declaring:

“Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external.”

For Newton time was absolute and set apart from the universe, but with the theories of Albert Einstein time became more complicated; it could be squeezed and distorted and was different in different places.

Time is integral to our experience of things but we find it very difficult to think about. It may not even exist and yet seems written into the existence of absolutely everything.

With Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey; Monica Grady, Professor of Planetary and Space Sciences at the Open University and Ian Stewart, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Warwick

Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems

Duration: 45 minutes
First broadcast: Thursday 09 October 2008

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss an iconic piece of 20th century maths – Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems. In 1900, in Paris, the International Congress of Mathematicians gathered in a mood of hope and fear. The edifice of maths was grand and ornate but its foundations, called axioms, had been shaken. They were deemed to be inconsistent and possibly paradoxical. At the conference, a young man called David Hilbert set out a plan to rebuild the foundations of maths – to make them consistent, all encompassing and without any hint of a paradox.

Hilbert was one of the greatest mathematicians that ever lived, but his plan failed spectacularly because of Kurt Gödel. Gödel proved that there were some problems in maths that were impossible to solve, that the bright clear plain of mathematics was in fact a labyrinth filled with potential paradox. In doing so Gödel changed the way we understand what mathematics is and the implications of his work in physics and philosophy take us to the very edge of what we can know.

With Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at Wadham College, University of Oxford; John Barrow, Professor of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge and Gresham Professor of Geometry and Philip Welch, Professor of Mathematical Logic at the University of Bristol.