Kate Chisholm

Space case

Plus: the frightening new facts about Pluto and the strangest sounds of the week

Space case
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The idea that Radio 2 should be sold off by the BBC to a commercial rival is as nonsensical as BBC1 losing Strictly Come Dancing, or Heinz giving up on baked beans. The station, in its former incarnation as the Light Programme, was a core product of the corporation, the home of the Palm Court Light Orchestra, Kenneth Williams, Semprini, Billy Cotton, Sid James and Edmundo Ros. It gave us ‘light’ entertainment — music to dance, exercise or sing to, comedy shows, magazine programmes, dramas of ordinary life rather than Greek tragedy.

The comedy programmes on 2 were siphoned off long ago to 4 and then 4 Extra, as were all the dramas, including The Archers, and Woman’s Hour too. The ‘light’ orchestras have mostly been disbanded, even the BBC Concert Orchestra is under threat but just about surviving. But, at more than 15 million listeners, 2’s programmes still have the largest audience of any TV or radio network (Radio 3 hovers around two million while 4 reaches just above 10 million). Its annual 500 Words writing competition for children, promoted by Chris Evans, last year received 118,632 entries, reaching out beyond its core audience.

The station could do with a refresh, as could the rest of the corporation, tightening up the organisation as well as reviewing its output; 2’s schedule looks a bit tired. It could do with some more features, a drama or two, maybe even its own radio soap. But to get rid of it?

The pictures of Pluto from the New Horizons spacecraft were weirdly compelling but not nearly as exciting as listening to astrophysicists talking about it on last week’s Inside Science on Radio 4, presented by Adam Rutherford (and produced by Adrian Washbourne). It was hard to imagine what the images were actually showing us while looking at them flicker past on the television news or two-dimensionally on screen or in the newspaper. I got no sense of its size; how it relates to us; what it’s possible to find out about its surface. But by chance I caught the programme while driving home on Thursday evening and discovered why those pictures have made the scientists so excited, not least because the experts, guided by Rutherford, explained things in a language that was so easy to follow.

Pluto’s actual size, for instance. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell explained that we now know it’s much smaller than previously thought and could fit comfortably into the USA. Along with its moon. That small? The New Horizons spacecraft itself is ‘no bigger than a baby grand piano’, and yet it was thrust into outer space in January 2006 and by some miracle (to my mind) nine years later reached its target, a keyhole, 60 miles by 90 miles, through which it had to pass if its cameras were to take the pictures of the planet we are now seeing.

Planet is the key word here. Back in 2006, amid much secrecy and heartache among astrophysicists, Pluto was demoted. It was decided that it could no longer be thought of as the ninth planet, because it was actually just another lump of inactive material in the Kuiper belt, beyond Neptune. That is until last week, when suddenly the science had to be rewritten, all previous theories abandoned. Those first pictures revealed huge mountains made of ice which, from their size — up to 11,000 feet — and the fact that no craters can be seen on the surface, indicate that Pluto is in fact both geologically active and ‘frighteningly’ young, dating back less than 100 million years, or to the period when dinosaurs were roaming the earth.

The excitement of those taking part was palpable, their willingness to rethink, to jettison past certainties and set up new experiments that will take years to come to fruition, is a remarkable testament, and a lesson. There is so much more to those pictures than mere image.

The strangest sounds on 4 this week were heard on Saturday night when Alan Dein and his producer Laurence Grissell trawled through an archive of ‘instructional’ records from the 1950s and 1960s, which saw an explosion of efforts at self-help. On How to Make an Archive on 4 Dein took us through the key stages of how to make a radio programme, what you need to think about, who you need to talk to, how to put it together. ‘I am going to help you…’ he teased, before playing clips from how to learn Morse Code (a six-record course), how to speak Russian (which strangely sold in piles at the height of the Cold War), how to yodel, how to speak relaxed English: ‘There’s a nice pub. Let’s have a noggin.’

You could learn how to strengthen the muscles around your mouth (to stop wrinkles and put off ageing), listen to Sparkie, the amazing talking budgerigar, teach yourself self-hypnosis, take a lesson in ‘love-making’. Even writers like Shaw and Tolkien got caught up in the enthusiasm, roped in to teach the use of ‘spoken English’. In the recording, the great Tolkien gets into a conversation with a tobacconist, ‘Let me have a box of cigarettes… Turkish please.’