In Our Time

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.


Duration: 45 minutes
First broadcast: Thursday 29 May 2008

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the strange mathematics of probability where heads or tails is a simple question with a far from simple answer.

Gambling may be as old as the hills but probability as a mathematical discipline is a relative youngster. Probability is the field of maths relating to random events and, although commonplace now, the idea that you can pluck a piece of maths from the tumbling of dice, the shuffling of cards or the odds in the local lottery is a relatively recent and powerful one. It may start with the toss of a coin but probability reaches into every area of the modern world, from the analysis of society to the decay of an atom.

With Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford; Colva Roney-Dougal, Lecturer in Pure Mathematics at the University of St Andrews; Ian Stewart, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Warwick

The Laws of Motion

Duration: 45 minutes
First broadcast: Thursday 03 April 2008

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Newton’s Laws of Motion. In 1687 Isaac Newton attempted to explain the movements of everything in the universe, from a pea rolling on a plate to the position of the planets. It was a brilliant, vaultingly ambitious and fiendishly complex task; it took him three sentences.

These are the three laws of motion with which Newton founded the discipline of classical mechanics and conjoined a series of concepts – inertia, acceleration, force, momentum and mass – by which we still describe the movement of things today. Newton’s laws have been refined over the years – most famously by Einstein – but they were still good enough, 282 years after they were published, to put Neil Armstrong on the Moon.

With Simon Schaffer, Professor in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Darwin College; Raymond Flood, University Lecturer in Computing Studies and Mathematics and Senior Tutor at Kellogg College, University of Oxford; Rob Iliffe, Professor of Intellectual History and History of Science at the University of Sussex

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.

The Multiverse

Duration: 45 minutes
First broadcast: Thursday 21 February 2008

Melvyn Bragg and guests will be leaving the studio, the planet and indeed, the universe to take a tour of the Multiverse.

If you look up the word ‘universe’ in the Oxford English Dictionary you will find the following definition:
“The whole of created or existing things regarded collectively; all things (including the earth, the heavens, and all the phenomena of space) considered as constituting a systematic whole.”

That sounds fairly comprehensive as a description of everything, but for an increasing number of physicists and cosmologists the universe is not enough. They talk of a multiverse – literally many universes – to explain aspects of their theory, the character of the universe and the riddle of our existence within it. Indeed, compared to the scope and complexity of the multiverse, the whole of our known reality may be as a speck of sand upon a beach.

The idea of a multiverse is still controversial, some argue that it isn’t even science, because it is based on an idea that we may never be able to prove or even see. But what might a multiverse be like, why are physicists and cosmologists increasingly interested in it and is it really scientific to discuss the existence of universes we may never know anything

With Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society and Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge; Fay Dowker, Reader in Theoretical Physics at Imperial College; Bernard Carr, Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at Queen Mary, University of London


Duration: 45 minutes
First broadcast: Thursday 04 October 2007

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Antimatter, a type of particle predicted by the British physicist, Paul Dirac. Dirac once declared that “The laws of nature should be expressed in beautiful equations”. True to his word, he is responsible for one of the most beautiful. Formulated in 1928, it describes the behaviour of electrons and is called the Dirac equation.

But the Dirac equation is strange. For every question it gives two answers – one positive and one negative. From this its author concluded that for every electron there is an equal and opposite twin. He called this twin the anti-electron and so the concept of antimatter was born.

Despite its popularity with Science Fiction writers, antimatter is relatively mundane in physics – we have created antimatter in the laboratory and we even use it in our hospitals. But one fundamental question remains – why isn’t there more antimatter in the universe. Answering that question will involve developing new physics and may take us closer to understanding events at the origin of the universe.

With Val Gibson, Reader in High Energy Physics at the University of Cambridge; Frank Close, Professor of Physics at Exeter College, University of Oxford; Ruth Gregory, Professor of Mathematics and Physics at the University of Durham

Gravitational waves

Duration: 45 minutes
First broadcast: Thursday 17 May 2007

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss mysterious phenomena called Gravitational Waves in contemporary physics. The rather un-poetically named star SN 2006gy is roughly 150 times the size of our sun. Last week it went supernova, creating the brightest stellar explosion ever recorded. But among the vast swathes of dust, gas and visible matter ejected into space, perhaps the most significant consequences were invisible – emanating out from the star like the ripples from a pebble thrown into a pond. They are called Gravitational Waves, predicted by Einstein and much discussed since, their existence has never actually been proved but now scientists may be on the verge of measuring them directly. To do so would give us a whole new way of seeing the cosmos.

But what are gravitational waves, why are scientists trying to measure them and, if they succeed, what would a gravitational picture of the universe look like?

With Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Physics at the University of Surrey; Carolin Crawford, Royal Society Research Fellow at the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge;
Sheila Rowan, Professor in Experimental Physics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Glasgow