Magnetism in Another Time

By cjohnson | October 28, 2005 3:01 pm

I walked to the bus today rather than cycled, as I’m going to a concert later tonight and don’t want to have to try to leave the bike with the coat-check people at the concert. This means that I have a bit more time on my journey, and decided to see what was on my ipod, which has been continuing to faithfully download podcasts of things even though I have not listened to any for quite a while. As I have not taken the time to figure out how to organize the podcasts in a useful way on the pod, I can end up flicking through them at random now that I have so many un-listened-to ones. In this way, I found that on the BBC’s Radio 4 (the greatest speech radio station ever?), the series called “In Our Time” is back for a new season, and they did a rather nice show on Magnetism last month (29/09). I recommend it.

Beware of In Our Time, as it is a bit like the spoken word equivalent of KCRW’s 9:00am music programme entitled “Morning Becomes Eclectic”, which I sometimes prefer to call “Morning Becomes Pretentious”: It can get a bit puffed-up and full of itself and otherwise carried away with its worthy business of being beyond category, and can end up being a bit off-putting to the casual listener (ahem, there’s a lesson in there somewhere for us all)…. but there’s excellent stuff in there (which ultimately makes them worth-while, in my opnion). Witness the opening words of presenter Melvin Bragg (still amusingly regarded by many in the UK as the model living Renaissance Man), which he actually reads out to introduce the programme:

Pliny the Elder, in his Historia Naturalis, tells a story of a legendary Greek shepherd called Magnes who, while guiding his flock on Mount Ida, suddenly found it hard to move his feet. The nails of his sandals held fast to the rock beneath them, and the iron tip of his crook was strangely attracted to the boulders all around. Magnes had stumbled across the lodestone, or ‘Magnetite’, and discovered the phenomenon of magnetism. Plato was baffled by this strange force, as were Aristotle and Galen, and despite being used in navigation, supposedly suspended over the body of Mohammed and deployed in the pursuit of medical cures – apart from some 13th century scholastic studies – it was not until the late 16th century that any serious scientific attempt was made to explain the mystifying powers of the magnet.

…but before you just run away, or at least leave your skateboard firmly outside the stuffy Cambridge Senior Common Room he’s clearly going to simulate for an hour or so (at 9:00am on a Monday morning -I love the BBC!), do have a listen. It is actually a nice discusson. He has three excellent guests, Stephen Pumfrey, Senior Lecturer in the History of Science at the University of Lancaster, John Heilbron, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley, and Lisa Jardine, Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary, University of London.

He asks further in his introduction:

Who pioneered the study of magnetism? What theories did they construct from its curious abilities and how was the power of the magnet brought out of the realm of magic and into the service of science?

This is the basis for a fun discussion, which – if you need further motivation – has history, geography, physics, cartography, polictics, religion, art and sex in several places. (Particularly funny when the sex comes up, because everybody gets uncomfortable at the mere metion of the word, and one person is a bit too close to the microphone and keep’s making a loud “hmmm” noise in one or two places which are borderline juvenile.)

My only criticism of the programme is slight, and is my usual one about the bias of the broadcast establishment in the UK about things they consider “intellectual”. It is still very much from the Art and Humanities perspective and less an actual Science one. So notice that all the guests are Historians of a very very bygone age (but yes, an interesting one) and so by the end of the programme they get to “modern times” by mentioning Faraday once or twice! This is usually the case with these sorts of programmes. One could get the impression that no actual physics has happened since 1926 or so….. In this case, they don’t even make it out of the 19th Century.

Nevertheless, it is classified on the BBC website as a History programme, so I should be grateful when they do any science in this primetime slot at all. For what it is, it is a very accessible and pleasant exploration of the early and middle history of the concepts upon which Magnetism impinge….. As you may know, much of the puzzling over magnetism was during the development of many central ideas in science such as action at a distance, the overthrow of the earth-centric view of the world, etc.

In other news, the BBC has finally made it into the late 20th Century by allowing you to download/stream programme episodes older than a week past broadcast, and so you can find the link to the programme here.

Enjoy, and come back and tell us what you think.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Arts, Science, Science and Society
  • Richard Carter

    In Our Time is required listening for me—even when it’s on a subject that doesn’t particularly interest me. I burn it to CD and listen to it in the car on my way into work (Note to self: Buy iPod!).

    I like the fact that the programme deals more with the history of ideas than the present-day stuff, although I wish they covered scientific ideas more often. I’d like the BBC to do a science podcast too, but I think that should be a different programme.

  • Clifford


    I think it is excellent too….. but I think that the history of an idea -especially a science one- can often be woefully incomplete if you stop before you get to the 20th Century. Magnetism can really get fascinating once you understand some of the 20th century ideas that the thinkers in centuries previous were reaching for but did not quite grasp. Also, several of the “theories of everything” that some of the people of those times were putting together as the basis for magnetism are particulalry interesting when put alongside 20th century ideas……but they never got there…. largely because they did not think to invite someone who was familiar with the 20th century physics. Those historian were great, but they could not do it. They were too taken with the older (pretty) stuff and had no feeling for the later, and how it fit with the older. Missed opportunity.


  • boreds

    was it gravity today, or is that next week? i missed it this morning. i agree with your (slight) criticisms, and it will be interesting to hear how the gravity programme compares.

    of course, the humanities bias reflects the unfortunate situation that educated people in England are `supposed’ to know about the arts, but not necessarily the sciences. oh well.

  • Kevin Marks

    They do a decent job on mixing arts and science – they have had programs on the Higgs Boson, the KT boundary and Dark Energy as well.

  • Clifford

    boreds….. yes, that’s my point.

    Kevin Marks……yes, they have got better in recent times: sometimes they cover “modern” topics, but its not just the headline topics that have a 20th century history worth talking about….



  • boreds

    Right, but it’s not just the broadcast establishment. Unfortunately, I think R4 content reflects rather than imposes this arts/humanities bias.

    Of course, it is part of the point of intellgient spoken word radio to educate, which is your point I think. The problem the BBC controllers face is that (they think) a lot of people will turn off if the science gets too science-y.

    Right, will have to find yesterdays programme….

  • Pingback: The Graviton In Our Time | Cosmic Variance()


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