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Radio review: Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford, and This Cultural Life

30 June 2023

Fran Monks

The podcast Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford asks some intriguing questions about science

The podcast Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford asks some intriguing questions about science

FUTUROLOGY is surely the most derided of scientific endeavours. Cheap laughs are to be found aplenty in the archives of BBC1’s Tomorrow’s World, wherein serious academics opined on how, by the early 21st century, we would be powering our hover-cycles with compressed cockroaches. Despite Tim Harford’s injunction — made in Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford (podcast, released last Friday) — that we should not mock what passed for genius in days gone by, we cannot help ourselves; and nor can Mr Harford himself.

In the latest edition of the podcast, we hear stories of scientists who have imagined changing the weather. The General Electric engineer and Nobel Prizewinner Irving Longmuir thought that he had done it when he dumped dry ice into clouds. In the Soviet Russia of the 1950s, Nikolai Rusin and Liia Flit dreamed of warming up the Arctic and published a book, Man Versus Climate, setting out his case. In both instances, the vision was of streams in the desert, and valleys so thick with corn that all shall laugh and sing.

Harford finds this faith in human ingenuity “poignant”, reflecting that, in the 1950s, the impulse to control the climate was based on something like intellectual whimsy, while today’s climate scientists face a situation that is a great deal more desperate. I wonder whether Rusin and Flit, who lived through catastrophic famines in the 1930s and ’40s, will have seen the whimsical side.

Cloud-seeding is still practised by some, although the evidence for its efficacy has never reached a point where it is indisputable.

The podcast nevertheless provided us with some intriguing questions. Why is it that big ideas of this kind are no longer encouraged? Indeed, are there routes of scientific inquiry which should be actively discouraged, insights left unpursued? If so, this would represent as significant a shift in our intellectual ambition as the Enlightenment itself, and require a fundamental reprogramming of our mindset.

This is territory for the novelist— something that Ian McEwan might fancy, perhaps. His talent to unnerve is as much to do with philosophical anxiety as physical disgust. In his early career, McEwan majored in disgust. Novels such as The Comfort of Strangers and The Cement Garden were thrillingly banned from the school library. “I had written myself into too cramped a world of perversity and darkness,” he admitted to John Wilson in This Cultural Life (Radio 4, 17 June).

There are plenty of entertaining details in this valuable interview: McEwan’s interview at Cambridge, in which he attempted to bluff a knowledge of Macbeth; and an occasion when he successfully bluffed a knowledge of brain surgery to a group of medical students. In the literary trio comprising him, Christopher Hitchens, and Martin Amis, he is the last man standing.

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