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Criminal minds

13 March 2015


THE scenario feels familiar: a faithful clergyman, slogging away at his duties in an unyielding country parish, is victimised by anonymous hate-mail. It gets far worse: his son, blamelessly working as a solicitor, is charged with a spate of animal maimings, found guilty, and sent to prison.

Several years later, the case is brought to the notice of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, prostrated by the recent death of his wife. Has the mantle of his most famous creation fallen on to his shoulders? He can write crime fiction - can he solve a real crime?

This is the scenario of ITV's new Arthur and George (Mondays), based on Julian Barnes's novel, retelling a sensational true history. It has started excellently, the period conjured up with swirling mists and over-stuffed drawing rooms, an idyllic country parish revealed as a place of manifest evil. The clergyman in question is Parsee; and Conan Doyle concludes that a shocking case of racial prejudice has been played out.

In fact, he is prone to make snap judgements (above all, the conviction that a miscarriage of justice has taken place, before he knows anything about it), and one of the ironies of the piece is how fiction relates to real life. Does Sherlock Holmes proceed less by logical deduction than by intuition, which, because that is the way the story is written, proves to be correct? Will his creator be shown up as inferior to his creation?

It is a constant temptation to imagine that we are God rather than merely his earthly representatives, and, if you are of a radical theological bent, then you will be familiar with the idea that the Almighty is, in a sense, our creation rather than the other way round; so Conan Doyle is acting out the fate of all clergy as we fail to live up to what we proclaim.

Horizon: Secrets of the solar system (BBC2, Tuesday of last week) unsettled whatever certainties we still cherish about our place in the universe. Research proves that, far from the planets' revolving since their creation in fixed orbits, what we currently observe is a settling-down of a chaotic, dynamic origin. From a distance, the solar system looks like a star with four gas giants - and several lumps of rocky debris closer in.

We are one of the lumps. The key player is Jupiter. Now that we have identified 1000 planetary systems, we realise that our system is the odd one out. This means that the circumstances that encouraged the evolution of carbon-based life on earth are much rarer than hitherto appreciated - almost infinitesimally unlikely. Whether this supports the notion of a creator God was not addressed.

Our human version of God's first act of creation was explored in How We Got To Now with Steven Johnson (BBC2, Saturday). His account of how we invented new sources of light was, well, illuminating - and also sharp, engaging, and cheery. Candles gave way to spermaceti oil, itself displaced by Edison's long-lasting electric bulbs, and then by neon. Lasers might now be able to generate limitless safe electricity; but all this artificial light has messed up our natural rhythms of sleep. In the week's best news, I find that my insomnia is entirely proper.

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