The Forum



A world of ideas


  • Toni Morrison: The legacy of a literary legend

    23/09/2021 Duration: 39min

    The American writer Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” It was an urge which in her case yielded a rich array of novels, children’s books, plays and essays. Toni Morrison stands tall, as the first black woman of any nationality to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Celebrated for her masterpiece Beloved, she remains a towering figure, one of the most well-known and oft-taught authors of our age. Since her death in August 2019, many have been reassessing her multiple legacies: as a novelist, cultural critic, and editor. Joining Bridget Kendall to explore the life, work and impact of Toni Morrison are Dana Williams, Professor of African American Literature at Howard University in Washington DC and current President of the Toni Morrison Society; Janis A. Mayes, Emerita professor of African American Studies at Syracuse University, US; and Aretha Phiri, Associate Professor at Rhodes University in Grahamstown / Makhanda

  • Algorithms: From the ancients to the internet

    16/09/2021 Duration: 39min

    Hidden from view, complex to understand and often controversial, algorithms are at the heart of computer coding that underpins modern society. Every time we search the internet, every time we pay by credit card, even the romantic partners suggested to us by online dating sites – they’re all powered by algorithms. And their reach is growing all the time, as some societies use them to automate decisions regarding criminal justice, mortgage applications and job recruitment. The history of algorithms is surprisingly ancient, stretching back to the Babylonian empire where large societies required a systematic way to count and order different aspects of citizens’ lives. Today some people are questioning their use, as some algorithms have been shown to replicate bias and there are fears that algorithms have the potential to undermine democracy. Bridget Kendall is joined by Ramesh Srinivasan, Professor in the Department of Information Studies at the University of California Los Angeles and the author of Beyond t

  • Louder! How the electric guitar conquered popular music

    09/09/2021 Duration: 39min

    Whether it be a kerrang, a chop, a blistering solo, some finger picking or a subtle flange, the electric guitar is one of the defining sounds of the 20th century. Without it – and its constant companion, the amplifier - popular culture would be unrecognisable today: no big gigs, no stadium concerts. And almost certainly no rock music. But why was it needed and how was it created? Who were the pioneers of the technology and who were the early-adopting exponents? Rajan Datar and his three guest experts delve into the roots of this iconic instrument. Monica Smith is Head of Exhibitions and Interpretation for the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. Among the many projects she has curated at the museum is From Frying Pan to Flying V: The Rise of the Electric Guitar. Paul Atkinson is professor of Design and Design History at Sheffield Hallam university and the author of Amplified: A Design History of the Electric Guitar. HP Newquist is the founder of the National Guitar Museum

  • Luigi Pirandello: Italian dramatist who brought chaos to the stage

    02/09/2021 Duration: 39min

    It’s a hundred years since the infamous premiere of Luigi Pirandello’s experimental play Six Characters in Search of an Author, when an enraged Rome theatre audience yelled abuse at the Italian playwright and chased him out of the theatre. Since then, the play has gained iconic status as a piece of theatre which helped move Western culture into modernity. But what of the author of this play? He was a complex figure who found inspiration from his wife’s madness as well as the actors he worked with, and he formed an unlikely association with the Italian Fascist Prime Minister Benito Mussolini which still intrigues theatre critics and academics to this day. Joining Rajan Datar to discuss Luigi Pirandello and his work are Guido Bonsaver, Professor in Italian Cultural history at the University of Oxford; Dr Enza de Francisci, lecturer in Translation studies at the University of Glasgow, who specialises in Pirandello’s Sicilian identity and his portrayal of women, and is the author of A 'New' Woman in Verga and P

  • Mars: A history of the Red Planet

    26/08/2021 Duration: 39min

    With three separate missions exploring the Red Planet in 2021, Mars is once again under the spotlight. But to tell the truth, it’s never been away. Mars has fascinated people for centuries with its seemingly curious motion in the night sky, its red colour and the eternal question as to whether it may or may not harbour life, past or present. Since the 1960s, robotic exploration of Mars has provided us with evidence that it may have had periods where it was once a warm and wet planet. That’s in contrast to the arid, cold celestial object we know today. The harsh Martian atmosphere presents challenges for anyone hoping to land humans on the planet. But nevertheless, the next few decades could potentially see either a private commercial operator, a national space agency or an international partnership make history with the planet’s first human exploration. Some have even argued that’s a first step to ‘terraforming’ or populating Mars in the future. Bridget Kendall is joined by Michael Meyer, the lead scientist

  • A radiant light: The Indonesian poet Amir Hamzah

    19/08/2021 Duration: 39min

    The writer Amir Hamza is a national hero in Indonesia celebrated for both his poetry and his role in the development of the country’s national language. Hamza was an emotional man who struggled with thwarted love and inner conflict and created a beguilingly intense body of work. His poetry paid homage to Malay literary tradition infused with Islamic mysticism but also reflected new ideas springing up in the artistic circles in Java where he worked in the 1930s. Towards the end of that decade events conspired to enforce his return to the family home in Sumatra and ultimately led to his becoming a tragic victim of brutal retribution during Indonesia’s transition to independence. Rajan Datar is joined by Ayu Utami, an award-winning Indonesian novelist, playwright and broadcaster; Ben Murtagh, Reader in Indonesian and Malay at SOAS, University of London, and managing editor of the journal Indonesia and the Malay World; and Taufiq Hanafi, an Indonesian literary scholar currently at the Royal Netherlands Instit

  • Sailing by the stars: The pioneering voyages of David Lewis

    12/08/2021 Duration: 39min

    David Lewis was of one of the most remarkable nautical explorers of modern times. In the mid-1960s, he took his wife and two small daughters - who were less than five years old - on a sailing trip around the world in a small catamaran. What is more, for one part of the journey, he rejected standard 20th-Century navigational equipment and relied on much older methods of finding his way across the Pacific. In fact, it was his lifelong goal to prove that ancient seafaring methods were still valuable and his research helped revive ancient Polynesian navigation methods. In his more than eventful life, he also wrote a dozen books, practised as a GP in London’s East End and tackled many unclimbed peaks as a mountaineer. And he undertook hazardous trips to the Antarctic including one in which he was presumed dead. Rajan Datar is joined by David’s son Barry, who is also an accomplished sailor and who accompanied David on some of his seminal voyages; Dr. Christina Thompson, the editor of Harvard Review and the autho

  • Inside the mind of crime writer Patricia Highsmith

    05/08/2021 Duration: 42min

    Patricia Highsmith was one of the most successful suspense writers of the 20th century. Known especially for her novels The Talented Mr. Ripley, Carol and Strangers on a Train, she created complex and alluring characters, capable of terrible things and at the same time deeply human. Yet for much of her life, Highsmith herself remained an enigmatic figure, often seen as eccentric, troubled and difficult. But she had a circle of close friends who were loyal to the end. Presenter Bridget Kendall is joined by Andrew Wilson, author of the first biography of Highsmith, and Vivien De Bernardi, a close friend of Highsmith's during her later years in Switzerland. Produced by Jo Impey for BBC World Service Image: Patricia Highsmith at her home in France, 1976 Image credit: Derek Hudson, Getty Images

  • Ibn Sina: The Persian polymath

    02/08/2021 Duration: 26min

    Over a thousand years ago in the city of Bukhara in modern-day Uzbekistan, a young man was gaining a reputation for his great medical knowledge. His name was Ibn Sina and he was to go on to become one of the most influential physicians and philosophers not just in the Islamic world, but also in the West, where his writings were translated into Latin under the name Avicenna. For over 500 years, his five-volume Canon of Medicine was the most important medical reference book in the world. Joining Bridget Kendall to discuss Ibn Sina are: Nader El-Bizri, Professor of Philosophy and Civilisation Studies at the American University in Beirut; Peter E. Pormann, Professor of Classics and Graeco-Arabic Studies at the University of Manchester; and Emann Allebban, Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Providence College in Rhode Island in the US. Image: 14th century illuminated portrait of Avicenna or Ibn Sina, Biblioteca Nazionale Florence, Italy (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

  • The Panama Canal: The real story behind the engineering triumph

    29/07/2021 Duration: 39min

    Completed in 1914, the Panama Canal has long been regarded as a triumph of American ingenuity, a conquest over nature that helped secure the United States’ position as a world power. Taking ten years to build, it opened up new trading routes between East and West by providing a vital waterway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But what was the real story behind this challenging engineering project? How were the Panamanians affected? Who were the tens of thousands of workers who built the canal? And what was the environmental impact of work that literally cut through a mountain and redirected two oceans? And with climate change, will the Panama Canal be such a vital waterway in the future? Joining Bridget Kendall, is the Panamanian academic Dr Marixa Lasso, author of “Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal”, the first major book on the Canal from the Panamanian point of view; Julie Greene, Professor of History at the University of Maryland, and the author of “The Canal Builders: Making America’s

  • Ida Pfeiffer: 19th Century globetrotter

    22/07/2021 Duration: 39min

    Ida Pfeiffer's desire to see the world was like many childhood fantasies - destined to remain just that. And yet at the age of 44 once her sons had reached adulthood, she set off from her home in Vienna on a series of journeys that no woman of her time or background had contemplated. Beginning with a trip to the Middle East, Pfeiffer travelled mostly alone, documenting her voyages and collecting specimens that she later sold to help finance her adventures abroad. Budget travel was her mantra, as she was not a wealthy aristocrat like many travellers of that time. On her journeys Pfeiffer was attacked, kidnapped, robbed and almost drowned. She met head-hunters and endured extreme conditions to pursue her dream. Defying all convention, Pfeiffer became celebrated as the most travelled woman on the planet, circumnavigating the globe twice. But despite her trailblazing attitude, she was no feminist, believing that women should be either professionals or home-builders, not both. Rajan Datar discusses the life o

  • Rain or shine? A short history of the weather forecast

    15/07/2021 Duration: 39min

    How did we get from not having any reliable way of predicting the weather just 150 years ago, to today's accurate, tailor-made forecasts for places as small as a village? Bridget Kendall and guests trace the history of meteorology, from its first steps as an aid to quicker trans-Atlantic shipping to the latest methods which can help anticipate weather events as short-lived as a tornado. Bridget is joined by Kristine Harper, a former US Navy forecaster and now a history professor at Florida State University; Peter Gibbs who started out as a meteorologist with the British Antarctic Survey and the UK's Met Office before becoming one of the best known weather forecasters on BBC radio and television; and Peter Moore, a writer and historian with a particular interest in weather discoveries of the 19th century. Photo: A hurricane is seen from the International Space Station. (Scott Kelly/NASA via Getty Images)

  • Emile Berliner, inventor of the gramophone

    08/07/2021 Duration: 40min

    A young immigrant to the USA who started out working in a draper's shop, Emile Berliner ended up paving the way for the world of recordings and home entertainment that we delight in today. But even before he got to work on his recording machine - which he would later call the gramophone - Berliner made a major contribution to another piece of technology that's very familiar to us today: the telephone. And not content with all these achievements, he also promoted the pasteurisation of milk, financed a major scholarship for women to pursue academic research and tried to develop a working helicopter. So how did Berliner come up with these ideas? Why was he at one point prevented from selling his gramophones and records? And why is his name less well known today than those of his contemporaries Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell? Bridget Kendall is joined by three Berliner experts: Dr. Anja Borck, director of the Musee des ondes Emile Berliner in Montreal; Sam Brylawski, former head of recor

  • Tracing the roots of ancient trees

    01/07/2021 Duration: 39min

    Have you ever sat against the trunk of a large old tree, looked up into its canopy and wondered what it’s seen in its lifetime? There are many species of tree that survive well beyond a human lifespan, for hundreds of years, and some that can live far longer than that, spanning millennia. What can we learn from large old trees around the world? How do they influence the environment? And how can we preserve them for future generations? Joining Bridget Kendall to discuss ancient trees are Peter Crane, former director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London; Valerie Trouet, Professor at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona in the US; and conservation biologist, Michael Gaige. Produced by Jo Impey for BBC World Service Image: A Bristlecone Pine, one of the oldest living organisms on earth Image credit: Piriya Photography / Getty Images

  • The Wizard of Oz: A homegrown American fairy tale

    24/06/2021 Duration: 39min

    The Wizard of Oz is best known as one of the most watched films of all time, or as one of its many re-incarnations, such as the hugely successful Broadway musical Wicked or the Soviet, The Wizard of the Emerald City. But fewer people nowadays may be aware of the original book by the American writer L. Frank Baum that inspired these stories about a young girl who travels through a magic land in the company of a talking scarecrow, a tin man and a fearful lion. While he was a controversial figure, it was L. Frank Baum’s ideas about social justice and rights for women which pervade not just The Wizard of Oz but also its sequels, and explain why this story in its many forms has inspired many minority groups, from the African American to the LGBT communities. Joining Bridget Kendall is Michael Patrick Hearn, considered to be the world’s leading Oz scholar, and author of The Annotated Wizard of Oz; Dr Sally Roesch Wagner, who specialises in the feminist aspects of The Wizard of Oz including the influence of Frank

  • Falconry: The history of hunting with birds of prey

    17/06/2021 Duration: 39min

    The practice of hunting with birds of prey is thought to stretch back thousands of years. In early nomadic societies, falconry was used to hunt animals to provide food and clothing in places such as the steppes of Central Asia. As the practice spread, falconry evolved into a pastime that attracted the elite of European society, reflected in the extensive iconography of noblemen and women and their falcons. Today falconry is found in more than 90 countries around the world. At its core remains the importance of the relationship between falconer and the bird of prey, a bond unlike any other between man and beast. But although falconry has been classed as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, there are challenges to its survival. And some argue that falconry itself is exploitative. Rajan Datar is joined by the president of the International Association for Falconry, His Excellency Majid al-Mansouri; Adrian Lombard, Chair of the South African Falconry Association; art historian Anne-Lise Tropato, the first

  • Aramaic: an imperial language without an empire

    10/06/2021 Duration: 39min

    Aramaic is a language that for some three thousand years facilitated the exchange of ideas across large tracts of the Middle East and Asia. In its heyday it was the main official and written language across the Neo-Assyrian and Achaemenid empires. It was the language in which several sections of the Old Testament Bible were written. A Galilean dialect of Aramaic was probably the language Jesus spoke. Different dialects of Aramaic still exist today but numbers of speakers are dwindling and there are fears that it could die out. So what is the story of Aramaic? Why did it become so influential and then go into decline? And how much has it changed over its long history? Bridget Kendall is joined by three distinguished scholars of Aramaic: Professor Holger Gzella from Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich is the author of numerous publications on Aramaic as well as being an expert on other Old Testament languages. Professor Alison Salvesen from Oxford University works on ancient interpretations of the Hebre

  • X-rays: New ways of seeing

    03/06/2021 Duration: 39min

    The discovery of X-rays by the German scientist Wilhelm Roentgen in 1895 was nothing short of ground-breaking, opening up a new era in medicine. For the first time, doctors could see inside the human body without the need for surgery, and diagnose many more living patients. X-rays had major implications for physics as well, allowing scientists to study the structure and arrangement of molecules. Within wider society, they inspired artists to explore what these new rays could tell us about the representation of reality. It wasn’t long before X-rays were being used to scan baggage, in airport security and even in shoe shops to measure feet before exposure to radiation was properly understood. Huge strides in X-ray technology have given us the type of modern scans that are used today to detect conditions such as cancer. Joining Bridget Kendall are Drs Adrian Thomas and Arpan Banerjee, both radiologists who’ve collaborated on publications about the history of X-rays, and artist Susan Aldworth who’s used brain

  • Machiavelli, master of power

    27/05/2021 Duration: 39min

    Over five hundred years ago, dismissed diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli produced his most famous work, The Prince. Written on the fringes of the Italian city of Florence, the book has long been read as a priceless guide to power and what holding it truly involves. But who was the man behind the work? Why did he claim that a leader must be prepared to act immorally? And why did the name of this one-time political insider become a byword for cunning and sinister strategy? Rajan Datar explores the life and impact of Machiavelli’s The Prince with writer and scholar Erica Benner, historian professor Quentin Skinner, and journalist and novelist David Ignatius. [Image: Circa 1499, Niccolò Machiavelli. Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

  • The birth of the modern car

    20/05/2021 Duration: 39min

    The motor car is a feature of contemporary life the world over but when and where did motor vehicles begin? How did we get from the slow, noisy, dangerous, early vehicles of the 19th century to the swish, sleek, practical cars of today? Why did the early electric vehicle – so popular early on and the first car to go faster than a hundred kilometres an hour - suddenly fall out of favour? And who were the early engineers whose major contributions to car design deserve to be better known? These are some of the questions that Bridget Kendall asks three automotive experts: writer and broadcaster Giles Chapman is the award-winning author of 55 books on car history, culture and design; Larry Edsall also has many automotive books to his name; he has written about cars for many American newspapers and is founding editor at; and Gundula Tutt is a leading German restorer of historic vehicles whose work graces many public and private museums. She has a particular interest in the science and technology of

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