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Scientific fields

09 August 2013


THE Institute for Foundational Questions would be a good title for the research wing of the C of E's Theological Action Force, if only we could afford such a thing. In fact, it is the body directed by one of the expert guests invited to share their insights on Dara Ó Briain's Science Club (BBC2, Thursday of last week). The foundational question being considered was: what took place in the period after the Big Bang, in which the first atoms became the first stars? There is a nice theological resonance: it is the moment when light first appears in our universe. No one, alas, thought of referring to the prologue of St John's Gospel.

I found the current work on filling this gap - something to do with hydrogen atoms clumping together - less compelling than the research tool with which the work is being done: a field in Hampshire, full of radio antennae. It is only one of dozens of such fields throughout the continent, linked to a central computer. Together, they add up to a telescope the size of Europe.

This weekly magazine has too many snippets: interesting issues are opened up without enough space to develop them. Worst of all, it observes the current TV documentary dogma of avoiding diagrams at all costs. But, overall, this is an admirable series. Ó Briain is a genial host, and never allows his jokes to overbalance the object of the programme, which is to make contemporary science accessible.

One champion of contemporary technology who took me by surprise was the subject of Churchill's First World War (BBC4, Tuesday of last week). In 1914, he was First Lord of the Admiralty, but his enthusiasm for emulating the genius of his ancestor Marlborough led to the disaster of Gallipoli. He sought to redeem himself as an infantry officer in the trenches, but made his really positive contribution when recalled by Lloyd George as minister in charge of munitions. He insisted that the future lay with tanks and armour, and he ensured that the Allies had all that was needed.

As usual, in this docudrama the reconstructions undercut both the impact of contemporary images and the central evidence of the remarkable daily correspondence between Churchill and his beloved wife, Clementine. This was frank, open, and tender - and by no means one-sided: she played a crucial part in the development of his career, and, perhaps more importantly, his self-knowledge.

Hebrides: Islands on the edge (BBC2, Thursday of last week) has been an extraordinarily beautiful nature documentary series, exploring in its final programme the relationship between wildlife and humankind, pointing out that this most remote landscape is in fact the product of thousands of years of cultivation. After centuries of decline, numbers of species are expanding, with spectacular results; but, of course, the traditional human activities of fishing and crofting have greatly diminished.

A growth in tourism is providing income, based on careful husbandry of natural species, which is what the tourists come to see. The programme ended on this upbeat note - but my own morality considers that providing a service for monied tourists hardly counts as genuinely worthwhile human endeavour, in comparison with the crofters' harsh but essential provision of the necessities of life.

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