A set of podcasts worth browsing

A friend alerted me to the existence of this series of fascinating BBC podcasts called In Our Time. Each 40-50 minute episode consists of the host Melvin Bragg exploring one topic in depth with three academics from various British universities and research institutions. Originating in 1998, it produces a new episode each week and by now its archives have close to 1,000 podcasts. Each episode also has a comprehensive reading list for those who want to know more. The topics range all over the place, covering science, history, literature, art, religion, and so on so that anyone will find something that appeals to them or are curious about. Since the panelists are experts in the area being discussed, one gets reliable information based on in-depth research. The program is ideal for a generalist like me.

The program is also notable for the polite way that everyone engages with each other. Unlike in some panel shows where the people seem to be selected for having opposing views in the hopes that sparks will fly, these academics are very polite There is no yelling, interrupting, or talking over each other. They are highly respectful and complimentary of one another and even when they disagree, voice their differences in a non-confrontational way, prefacing it with things like “I would like to offer a slightly different perspective …” or “So-and-so is right but we should also bear in mind that …” It is a refreshing change from the heated antagonistic exchanges one finds in many other shows, where the goal seems to be to generate heat rather than light.

Bragg is a very good host, putting himself in the shoes of the general public, speaking little and mostly just to ask pointed questions of his guests or to get them to clarify something that regular listeners may not be familiar with. He clearly does his homework before each episode but uses that knowledge to guide the discussion rather than dominate. He is definitely not like the one parodied here.

I have been sampling episodes and found that there was something to be learned and appreciated in every one. In those episodes where I already knew something (Paul Dirac and Macbeth) I still learned something new and interesting while on topics that were unfamiliar to me (Herodotus, crocodiles, and The Gold Standard) there was a lot of fascinating stuff that I had been totally unaware of.

In the case of the episode about crocs (the flip-sounding umbrella label given to the closely related set of species consisting of crocodiles, alligators, and the like), I learned that the reptile lineage split into crocs and dinosaurs and I was astonished to learn that in the Triassic period beginning about 250 million years ago, it was the crocs, not dinosaurs, that dominated the then super-continent of Pangaea. They occupied all the available ecological niches of land and water. Some of them were fearsome, as large as a bus, and others had large rear legs and small forelegs and were bipedal and could run fast on land. Some were herbivores and others were carnivores. The first mass extinction that occurred at the end of the Triassic and going into the Jurassic led to many of the crocs going extinct or shifting to become more semi-aquatic and the dinosaurs came into their own, growing to become large and dominating the terrestrial niche and also the air by evolving into birds.

The mass extinction caused by the giant meteor crashing into the Earth that occurred about 66 million years ago killed off the dinosaurs but the crocs, being semi-aquatic, were not as badly affected and survived and diversified again though it is not clear why they did not diversify even more with some returning to being land-based as well. There are just about 25 species now but over the history there had been over 500.

Crocs clearly deserve more respect.

The Macbeth podcast serves to remind us that Shakespeare was very spare in his descriptions of the scenes and characters. Various directors over time have imposed their visions on the play and some have become so iconic that we cannot imagine anything else. In the Macbeth episode I was fascinated by one of the panelists describing his experience performing in a production where there was no director. Each actor had to develop their own interpretation of their character. It turns out that much of what we associate with the play has been due to previous directors’ visions that have been handed down, not necessarily anything in the play itself. For example, the iconic three witches that begin the play and play such a pivotal role in Macbeth’s fortunes? They immediately bring to mind three old and craggy women in pointy black hats stirring a cauldron of toxic substances in a foggy environment. But the play says nothing about how they look or what they were doing. Some early manuscripts even do not even call them witches but ‘weird sisters’ or ‘wayward sisters’.

Anyway, the upshot is that this is a site that is well worth browsing. I am pretty certain that you will find something that you like.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    I’ve been banging on about this podcast, at FtB, for at least five years.

    I particularly recommend the episode on “Heat”, which is a really excellent explanation of a very slippery concept, and “Phenomenology”, which I must have listened to 50 times but I’ve never got to the end or learned anything very much. It’s still fascinating, though.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Just listened to the Dirac podcast. To my shame, I’ve never read The Principles of Quantum Mechanics. Now I have to.

  3. Mano Singham says


    What is surprising about his book is that he was only 31 years old when he wrote it. Most research physicists wait until much later in life to write textbooks, focusing instead on research papers. There is also a stigma with writing textbooks, viewed by some as a sign that one’s research career is over. So Dirac was very unusual in doing so at the early stages of his career.

    One thing that you might find surprising is how chatty the early chapters are, with little mathematics but building the basic concepts of QM in a leisurely fashion. It gathers speed later.

    For me, one of the most interesting parts of the book was how he used the classical mechanics concept of Poisson brackets to make the connection to the QM commutation relations.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    Mano @3:

    he used the classical mechanics concept of Poisson brackets to make the connection to the QM commutation relations.

    This, and I’m sure many other things in the book, were integral parts of the QM courses I took. But the courses I took were never big on the history of the ideas they presented. In my, ahem, more mature years, I’ve become more interested in that. I’ve also come to appreciate the quality of the writing of some of the great physicists. Weinberg and Einstein come to mind, but nobody has engaged me like Dirac, in the papers and books I have read.

    I also love Freeman Dyson’s description of Dirac’s work as “like perfect mathematical sculptures falling from the sky”. I’ve long thought of the Dirac equation as a work of art as much as science.

    A Beautiful Mind indeed.

  5. Tethys says

    The Wyrrd sisters are probably based on the Norns, the three sisters who dwell beneath the world tree, and measure out mens fates.

    The word wyrd means one’s fate or destiny.

  6. K.Swamy says

    There is another interesting podcast from BBC 4 called ‘More or Less -- Behind the Stats’ which focuses on the ever ubiquitous world of numbers.

  7. fentex says

    I listen to several podcasts (mostly humour based from UK) and a similar one to that described here -- the Boring Talks.

    It’s rss feed is… https://podcasts.files.bbci.co.uk/p05t3gr2.rss
    It hasn’t been active for some time but what it is, is someone going into detail each time, on a topic that might generally be considered dull but usually interesting for it’s depth.

  8. Rob Curtis says

    just started listening to this podcast. Thank you Mano!

    of course, being a physicist, I chose the one on Dirac to start with.

    very fascinating.

  9. says

    The “in our time” cast has one episode about enzymes that is really really good. I did a review of it a couple years ago.

    Melvyn Bragg is a really good interviewer and most importantly he does his homework.

  10. birgerjohansson says

    I am told a terrestrial crocodile developed in Australia and only went extinct a few million years ago, which is a nere fortnight in geology.
    As for the very early crocodile-related reptiles that competed with the earliest dinosaurs and some big mammal-like reptiles, I assume this is what is sometimes referred to as pseudosuchids. They were a fearsome bunch.
    The eventual ascendancy of dinosaurs seems to have been coincidental, but I cannot recall if it was Nature or Science that made this claim.

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