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Picking out the plums

19 January 2013

9:00 AM

19 January 2013

9:00 AM

‘How much did you say the TV licence cost?’ asks my American friend.

‘£145.50,’ I reply.

‘One hundred and forty-five pounds,’ she repeats, with astonishment. ‘And everyone has to pay it?’

‘Yep. Every home with a TV.’

‘That’s a lot of money.’

My friend is an economist, with the ability to be as precise about the US’s federal budget as I am about what I’ve just spent at the supermarket. She made me stop and think. If you multiply £145.50 by 26.4 million households, that is for sure a huge amount of money. Is it worth it?

It’s the obvious question, to which the answer has to be yes, if the alternative is a commercially driven network, and especially when it comes to News. More divisive a question, and perhaps therefore more important, would be, what in particular is worth it?

This week we’ve had the chance to listen, for free, to Verdi, live from the Met, an adaptation of Trollope by the novelist Rose Tremain, two plays by Michael Frayn starring Simon Russell Beale, Greta Scacchi and Benedict Cumberbatch, and live commentary from the Australian Open. These are just the choicest samples. Often, though, what I find most inspiring are the odd things you just happen upon in the schedule. For instance that brilliant Radio 4 series The Life Scientific.

It’s such a simple idea. Take a scientist and ask them to talk about their work. But, and this is the key factor, not just about their work. Each week, the scientist under investigation is persuaded by the ever-so-skilful Jim Al-Khalili to talk a little as well about their life and how it interacts with their scientific endeavours. Since Al-Khalili is also an award-winning theoretical physicist, who just happens to have a gift for knowing when and how to ask the crucial question, his guests are usually easily persuaded to lower their guard.

Last week he was in conversation with Amoret Whitaker, a forensic entomologist. What’s striking about her life in science is how she got there. She left school believing herself not to be academic, with A-levels not in science but in what she described as ‘soft’ subjects. Then she worked in marketing for ten years before suddenly deciding, after a year of travelling, to ‘do something with her life rather than float about’. She took a degree in zoology, then a master’s in taxonomy and biodiversity. Now she’s one of just three experts on insect life in the UK called in by the police to help them solve murder cases.

I hope lots of young people were listening, because she made it sound so easy — that transition from hopeless at school to marketing to top scientist. In the week before Christmas, the Nobel Prize-winning developmental biologist Sir John Gurdon was equally inspiring as he described how at school (not your local comprehensive, but Eton) he had been labelled as a failure by his biology teacher and was told quite firmly he would never be a scientist. What that teacher didn’t know, or appreciate, was that at home Sir John collected caterpillars and studied them for hours, developing the patience and observational skills essential for his future career as the man who has pioneered research into stem cell transplants and cloning.

Science, in this series (produced by Pam Rutherford and Geraldine Fitzgerald), has been taken out of its box and brought to life, vividly, unforgettably. Amoret Whitaker, for instance, who spends her life at the Natural History Museum breeding blow flies and studying beetles, took us to Knoxville in Tennessee where she’s involved in something called ‘the body farm’. Here cadavers (we were assured they had all been freely donated) are collected and left to rot, so that Whitaker and her colleagues can study the larvae, flies, beetles that collect on the decomposing flesh. The more we know about rates of decomposition, and the accompanying insect life, the easier and more precise it will be to calculate the time of death.

Just as fascinating, although a lot less stomach-churning, was this week’s Just So Science (Radio 4), which I hope a lot of young listeners will catch on-demand (it was broadcast weekday lunchtimes so there’s no hope of being heard by them otherwise). The infinitely resourceful and sagacious Vivienne Parry wanted to find out how much science really lies behind Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Readings from Kipling, by Samuel West, were interwoven with conversations with chemists, biologists, oceanographers in this cleverly edited (by Rami Tzabar) short series.

First off was ‘How the Whale Got His Throat’, Kipling’s tale of the hungry whale, the ’stute fish, the shipwrecked fisherman and his suspenders — don’t forget the suspenders. Even though Kipling probably got it wrong (suspenders have nothing to do it), he was pretty spot-on when it came to explaining how the whale gets his dinner. Lunge-feeding by rorquals is, we
discovered, the most extraordinary feat
of biomechanical engineering on the

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