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Cycling spin-off

25 January 2013


AS THE winter weather does its worst, the thought of electrically heated pants seems enticing. But you have to be an élite cyclist to justify ownership of such a luxury: they are designed to keep the muscles warm before a race, and are just one of the armoury of gadgets that helped Team GB top the Olympic cycling-medals table.

It was with these hot pants that Tim Harford began his new series Pop-Up Economics (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week) - an example of the kind of marginal gain which is part of a successful economy's innovation and enterprise culture. Harford has made his statistics programme for Radio 4, More or Less, into cult listening; so it is perhaps not surprising that this new show should come with a live audience of whooping supporters, and a more off-the-cuff approach.

But Harford's lecture had none of the sceptical fizz or focus of his other show, and, while the rags-to-riches story of the Nobel Prizewinner Mario Capecchi is inspiring, the main point of the disquisition was ultimately banal: that an economy needs to encourage "long-shot" innovation as well as incremental improvement. Still, the audience seemed to love it - or maybe their hot pants were turned up to max.

The subjects of last week's series of The Essay: Five portraits of science (Radio 3, weekdays) knew a thing or two about innovation. It looked at five great scientists, from the Elizabethan alchemist and astrologer John Dee to Albert Einstein. So wildly different in their methods and ambitions, these two contribute to the aggregate image of the scientist as eccentric, ludic, and potentially deviant. Certainly, interest in Dee has been revived because of his apparently transgressive behaviour - a reputation created for him largely by William Godwin, in The Lives of the Necromancers. Jonathan Sawday's essay took us through this transformation, while Richard Hamblyn, on Einstein, dealt in some useful myth-busting: Einstein was top of his class at maths, and was a right-handed omnivore.

Andrew Brown's contribution on Galileo set about with a revisionist's scalpel. Galileo was a "cantankerous old sod" whose insistence on the veracity of Copernicus's view of the universe would, at the time, understandably have been regarded as a leap of intuition too far. All the evidence available at the time supported the theory of Tycho Brahe - one that, with hindsight only, can be seen as a botched attempt to patch up the old astronomical order. And, what is more, Galileo was a heretic for his belief in atomism, a kind of materialism which made the doctrine of transubstantiation implausible. Even if you could escape the Inquisition, you cannot escape the scrutiny of future historians.

In From Fact to Fiction (Radio 4, Saturday), in which playwrights respond in mini-drama form to a topical issue, Louise Ironside tackled Lance Armstrong's confession, tax avoidance, the weather, and the burger scandal. In Snow and Mirrors, a professional psychic attempted to fiddle her tax return and cheat her clients by using a more readily accessible source of information than "the other side". "Sometimes I need a little Google to help me through," she admitted. Don't we all?

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