Thursday, 7 March 2013

Wanted: Renaissance Man / Woman / Person

Warning: this post may contain traces of irony and humo(u)r.

Melvyn Bragg is admirable on "In Our Time" (BBC Radio 4). I don't hear a lot of admiration expressed for him: many people make mocking, snide remarks about his wonderful hair, but I have no such hang-ups.

And I do admire the way he copes with literature, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics and even, um, science - ok, I know linguistics is the scientific study of language etc, but I mean quantum physics, or superconductors or, today, absolute zero (no caps, @GuardianStyle?).

I also appreciate the way he really tries to make science understandable for himself and the intelligent lay-person. He tries to strip away jargon and pin the experts down to something that can be expressed and understood.

Often, however, the experts and, dare I say it, the scientists in particular, fail to come up to his standards. Language (or their use of it) does not seem capable of expressing the concepts, or even the data. So they are fall back on analogies, mundane examples of footballs (round ones, ok?), oranges or plates and so on, or into absurd terms and concepts like "the Big Bang".

This was coined by Sir Fred Hoyle, I believe, to mock the silliness of the idea that time and space and matter came into existence at one moment in the past. (But unfortunately it caught on, not just as a simple, headline term but also perhaps as the sort of simplistic concept or answer that people seem to long for.) So where did the original matter come from? Where did this intense explosion occur? If space did not exist, where did it happen etc? But the data, as we have it and understand it, seems to point to expanding universe, so, they tell us, it must have had a starting point etc. Aren't  we getting into irrational territory here, dare I say? People will fall back on the big G word in a moment. Surely, the situation is is, is that we just have only a tiny amount of data and don't really understand it? So we are forced into these silly and simplistic phrases and concepts.

Melvyn gamely battles on against this sort of thing, trying to make them speak clearly and understandably. He isn't really a renaissance man, equally at home with science and arts but he's pretty good. If only the scientific experts could have some of his art or language skills.

Give the man a medal, I say,  or make him a "Sir Bragg", or something... Oh, have they?


  1. For a less flattering portrait of Melvyn Bragg, see Pauline Foster’s posts here and here

    1. It is good to hear someone prepared to have a go at many subjects, but rather annoying when he gets your own one wrong, I agree. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, I'll have a look. Know anyone who would be as good?

  3. He knows little about linguistics but in a discussion he would ask some relevant questions. He's about the best all-rounder, no?