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The 'Wow!' factor

05 February 2016

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IN ANY typical discourse on the physics of the universe — on the Big Bang, for instance, or multiple dimensions — there comes a moment when one gives up following the argument and resolves one’s lower jaw into the shape of a half-articulated “Wow!” In the first of The Reith Lectures (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), this moment came about four minutes in, when Stephen Hawking started talking about singularity as “the infinite curvature of space/time . . . the end of time itself”.

Peppered though it was with jokes, and couched in approachable language, we can comprehend this kind of material only through translation into cartoonish metaphors that involve doughnuts and event horizons. One of Hawking’s more risqué jokes discussed the French scientific community’s objection to the term “Black Hole” when it was first coined; and, whatever image is indeed conjured up by the term, it bears no relation to whatever reality Professor Hawking was attempting to describe.

It is, therefore, appropriate that, on the BBC website, you can listen to the lectures while watching a commentary in the form of a cartoon illustration. These brilliant drawings come from the hand of Andrew Park, and bring to mind one of those self-reflexive gags from The Simpsons, where Homer asks a cartoon director whether his show goes out live. “No,” comes the reply, “it would place an intolerable strain on the illustrators’ wrists.”

In this instance, Park responds to every reference with a visual analogy. I particularly enjoyed the depiction of a man falling down a black hole and coming out as spaghetti. Don’t ask me what it meant, but it looked dangerous.

Sunday Worship (Radio 4) last week came from HM Prison Long Lartin, a Category A high-security prison in Worcestershire whichhouses some of the country’s most serious offenders. What the BBC producer Philip Bilson and his team do so well is to capture the acoustic ambience of the spaces from which they broadcast; here, the dry, boxy sound of a functional hall, institutional, characterless, and yet filled with words and music that might have melted the most adamantine of hearts.

Embedded within it were testimonies from prisoners about finding faith, and living with faith in the prison environment. The sermon addressed the loneliness of guilt, and the music on this occasion provided the perfect counterpoint: James MacMillan’s “O Radiant Dawn”never sounded so inspired, nor the first verse of “Amazing grace”, delivered solo by one of the prisoners, so meaningful. In summary, an excellent enterprise, presented in just the right register.

In the dullest part of the dullest season, Radio 3 keeps us on our toes with a succession of mini-seasons: last weekend, Folk Connections celebrated everything from the innocent warblings of folk singers, as recorded on wax cylinders, to the sophisticated folk imaginings of the classical greats.

One highlight, springing from the Late Junction stable, is a medley of renditions of the song “Barbara Allen”, with contributions from the likes of Bob Dylan and Nancy Kerr. All powerfully delivered, of course; but it cannot hide the fact that this is essentially a very silly song.

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