History and Philosophy

Ada Lovelace

Duration: 45 minutes
First broadcast: Thursday 06 March 2008

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the 19th century mathematician Ada Lovelace. Deep in the heart of the Pentagon is a network of computers. They control the US military, the most powerful army on the planet, but they are controlled by a programming language called Ada. It’s named after Ada Lovelace, the allegedly hard drinking 19th century mathematician and daughter of Lord Byron. In her work with Charles Babbage on a steam driven calculating machine called the Difference Engine, Ada understood, perhaps before anyone else, what a computer might truly be. As such the Difference Engine is the spiritual ancestor of the modern computer.

Ada Lovelace has been called many things – the first computer programmer and a prophet of the computer age – but most poetically perhaps by Babbage himself as an ‘enchantress of numbers’.

With Patricia Fara, Senior Tutor at Clare College, Cambridge; Doron Swade, Visiting Professor in the History of Computing at Portsmouth University; John Fuegi, Visiting Professor in Biography at Kingston University.



Duration: 45 minutes
First broadcast: Thursday 08 February 2007

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, Karl Popper whose ideas about science and politics robustly challenged the accepted ideas of the day. He strongly resisted the prevailing empiricist consensus that scientists’ theories could be proved true.

Popper wrote: “The more we learn about the world and the deeper our learning, the more conscious, specific and articulate will be our knowledge of what we do not know, our knowledge of our ignorance”. He believed that even when a scientific principle had been successfully and repeatedly tested, it was not necessarily true. Instead it had simply not proved false, yet! This became known as the theory of falsification.

He called for a clear demarcation between good science, in which theories are constantly challenged, and what he called “pseudo sciences” which couldn’t be tested. His debunking of such ideologies led some to describe him as the “murderer of Freud and Marx”.

He went on to apply his ideas to politics, advocating an Open Society. His ideas influenced a wide range of politicians, from those close to Margaret Thatcher, to thinkers in the Eastern Communist bloc and South America.

So how did Karl Popper change our approach to the philosophy of science? How have scientists and philosophers made use of his ideas? And how are his theories viewed today? Are we any closer to proving scientific principles are “true”?

With John Worrall, Professor of Philosophy of Science at the London School of Economics; Anthony O’Hear, Weston Professor of Philosophy at Buckingham University; Nancy Cartwright, Professor of Philosophy at the LSE and the University of California


Indian Mathematics

Duration: 45 minutes
First broadcast: Thursday 14 December 2006

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the contribution Indian mathematicians have made to our understanding of the subject. Mathematics from the Indian subcontinent has provided foundations for much of our modern thinking on the subject. They were thought to be the first to use zero as a number. Our modern numerals have their roots there too. And mathematicians in the area that is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were grappling with concepts such as infinity centuries before Europe got to grips with it. There’s even a suggestion that Indian mathematicians discovered Pythagoras’ theorem before Pythagoras.

Some of these advances have their basis in early religious texts which describe the geometry necessary for building falcon-shaped altars of precise dimensions. Astronomical calculations used to decide the dates of religious festivals also encouraged these mathematical developments.

So how were these advances passed on to the rest of the world? And why was the contribution of mathematicians from this area ignored by Europe for centuries?

With George Gheverghese Joseph, Honorary Reader in Mathematics Education at Manchester University; Colva Roney-Dougal, Lecturer in Pure Mathematics at the University of St Andrews; Dennis Almeida, Lecturer in Mathematics Education at Exeter University and the Open University


The Speed of Light

Duration: 45 minutes
First broadcast: Thursday 30 November 2006

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the speed of light. Scientists and thinkers have been fascinated with the speed of light for millennia. Aristotle wrongly contended that the speed of light was infinite, but it was the 17th Century before serious attempts were made to measure its actual velocity – we now know that it’s 186,000 miles per second.

Then in 1905 Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity predicted that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. This then has dramatic effects on the nature of space and time. It’s been thought the speed of light is a constant in Nature, a kind of cosmic speed limit, now the scientists aren’t so sure.

With John Barrow, Professor of Mathematical Sciences and Gresham Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge University; Iwan Morus, Senior Lecturer in the History of Science at The University of Wales, Aberystwyth; Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University


The Poincaré Conjecture

Duration: 45 minutes
First broadcast: Thursday 02 November 2006

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Poincaré Conjecture. The great French mathematician Henri Poincaré declared: “The scientist does not study mathematics because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing and life would not be worth living. And it is because simplicity, because grandeur, is beautiful that we preferably seek simple facts, sublime facts, and that we delight now to follow the majestic course of the stars.”

Poincaré’s ground-breaking work in the 19th and early 20th century has indeed led us to the stars and the consideration of the shape of the universe itself. He is known as the father of topology – the study of the properties of shapes and how they can be deformed. His famous Conjecture in this field has been causing mathematicians sleepless nights ever since. He is also credited as the Father of Chaos Theory.

So how did this great polymath change the way we understand the world and indeed the universe? Why did his conjecture remain unproved for almost a century? And has it finally been cracked?

With June Barrow-Green, Lecturer in the History of Mathematics at the Open University; Ian Stewart, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Warwick; Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford.


The Second Law of Thermodynamics

Duration: 45 minutes
First broadcast: Thursday 16 December 2004

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Second Law of Thermodynamics which can be very simply stated like this: “Energy spontaneously tends to flow from being concentrated in one place to becoming diffused and spread out”. It was first formulated – derived from ideas first put forward by Lord Kelvin – to explain how a steam engine worked, it can explain why a cup of tea goes cold if you don’t drink it and how a pan of water can be heated to boil an egg.

But its application has been found to be rather grander than this. The Second Law is now used to explain the big bang, the expansion of the cosmos and even suggests our inexorable passage through time towards the ‘heat death’ of the universe. It’s been called the most fundamental law in all of science, and CP Snow in his Two Cultures wrote: “Not knowing the Second Law of Thermodynamics is like never having read a work of Shakespeare”.

What is the Second Law? What are its implications for time and energy in the universe, and does it tend to be refuted by the existence of life and the theory of evolution?

With John Gribbin, Visiting Fellow in Astronomy at the University of Sussex; Peter Atkins, Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University; Monica Grady, Head of Petrology and Meteoritics at the Natural History Museum



Duration: 45 minutes
First broadcast: Thursday 19 February 2004

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Ernest Rutherford. He was the father of nuclear science, a great charismatic figure who mapped the landscape of the sub-atomic world. He identified the atom’s constituent parts, discovered that elemental decay was the cause of radiation and became the first true alchemist in the history of science when he forced platinum to change into gold.

He was born at the edge of the Empire in 1871, the son of Scottish immigrant farmers and was working the fields when a telegram came from the great British physicist J J Thomson asking him to come to Cambridge. Rutherford immediately laid down his spade saying “that’s the last potato I ever dig”. It was. He went on to found a science, win a Nobel Prize and pioneer the ‘big science’ of the twentieth century.

With Simon Schaffer, Professor in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge; Jim Al–Khalili, Senior Lecturer in Physics at the University of Surrey; Patricia Fara, Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge



Duration: 45 minutes
First broadcast: Thursday 02 October 2003

Melvyn Bragg and guests discusses the life and ideas of James Clerk Maxwell whose work is not widely known, but whose genius and contribution to the age in which we live is enormous.

He took the first colour photograph, defined the nature of gases and with a few mathematical equations expressed all the fundamental laws of light, electricity and magnetism – and in doing so he provided the tools to create the technological age, from radar to radio and televisions to mobile phones. He is credited with fundamentally changing our view of reality, so much so that Albert Einstein said, “One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell”.

But who was James Clerk Maxwell? What were his ideas, and does this nineteenth century ‘natural philosopher’ deserve a place alongside Newton and Einstein in the pantheon of science?

With Simon Schaffer, Reader in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge; Peter Harman, Professor of the History of Science at Lancaster University and editor of The Scientific Letters and Papers of James Clerk Maxwell; Joanna Haigh, Professor of Atmospheric Physics at Imperial College London


Chance and Design

Duration: 45 minutes
First broadcast: Thursday 13 February 2003

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the theories of a grand design in the universe. The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould argued that if you re-ran the tape of evolutionary history, an entirely different set of creatures would emerge. Man would not exist because the multitude of random changes that resulted in us would never be repeated exactly the same way. Others disagree, arguing that there is a pattern that points to some kind of direction – even, perhaps, a design, a sense that some things are pre-ordained.

Who were the original proponents of the idea of a grand design? Were they deliberately setting out to find a scientific theory that could sit alongside religious faith? On the other hand, can the concept of contingency – or the randomness of evolution – be compatible with a belief in God?

With Simon Conway Morris, Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology at Cambridge University and author of The Crucible of Creation – the Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals; Sandy Knapp, botanist at the Natural History Museum; John Brooke, Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University