And your point, Professor?

Pop idol turned top boffin Brian Cox doesn’t shy away from the big issues. With programmes such as Wonders of the Solar System, Wonders of Life and Human Universe, Cox, the heir apparent to His Eminence Sir David Attenborough, has dared to dream on a cosmic scale. Are there any limits to his mighty intellect? In his latest adventure, Forces of Nature (BBC1, Monday), the ambitious prof boldly seeks to illustrate the workings of ‘the underlying laws of nature’. As wistful electronic music tinkled Eno ishly in the background, he assured us, in a metaphysical tone, that ‘the whole universe, the whole of physics, is contained in a snowflake’. Representing

Gods and monsters

Although Nepal’s earthquake last April visited our television screens with images of seismic devastation, the disaster has probably had little impact upon the prevailing western impression of this country. For many the mountain state remains steadfastly exotic and remote. This is not just a consequence of those sublimely unattainable Himalayan peaks. For generations Nepal was a source of western fantasy that bordered on the obsessive and carried an undercurrent of late-imperial eroticism. What had so stirred European appetites was the long-standing Nepalese policy of playing hard to get. A short, bitter conflict in 1814–1816 with the East India Company inspired its militant Gurkha elite to pursue the rigorous exclusion of

Bored and lonely in Kathmandu

It started as a ‘shoke’ — the Anglo-Indian slang word for ‘hobby’. Bored and lonely in Kathmandu, the young Assistant Resident, Brian Hodgson, began studying the flora and fauna of the hills, about the only occupation he was allowed to pursue apart from shooting woodcock and snipe under the constraints imposed by the Raja. The unicorn of the Himalayas had cantered through Chinese mythology for centuries. In no time, Hodgson found a living specimen in the King’s menagerie, a panting antelope from the Tibetan plateau which, alas, soon expired, unable to survive at lower altitudes, but not before Hodgson had established that it in fact possessed two horns. The unlucky

There will be blood | 4 June 2015

If you’re in the least bit squeamish you’d better stop reading now. What follows is not for those who blanch at Casualty and come over all faint at the sight of blood. I’m told it’s a first for radio — following an operation in real time and going right inside the experience. It began at breakfast time on Tuesday on Radio Five Live as we listened to Stephen, a patient at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. He’d woken up at 3 a.m. to hear one of the nurses clip-clopping down the corridor towards him. She’d come to tell him that at last they’d found a heart which they hoped would

Katmandu Notebook

After the first earthquake we were told that the chance of another one was 200 to 1. A fortnight later, when we were just beginning to recover, the second one hit. Perhaps I’m getting better at this, because this time I was able to control my body enough to run outside and join the crowd in the street. Standing with my family, looking back towards our home, I could see dust billowing from the foundations of the houses. They seemed to be dancing back and forth. The chances of a third strike, we’re told, are minuscule. Should we believe this? No one feels ready to relax. Nearly all of us

Portrait of the week | 14 May 2015

Home David Cameron, the Prime Minister, soon got used to the surprise of the Conservatives being returned in the general election with a majority of 12. He retained George Osborne as Chancellor of the Exchequer and made him First Secretary of State too. Theresa May, Philip Hammond, Michael Fallon and Iain Duncan Smith also stayed put, but Chris Grayling replaced William Hague, who had left the Commons, as Leader of the House, to be replaced as justice secretary by Michael Gove, who was replaced as chief whip by Mark Harper. Amber Rudd became Energy Secretary. John Whittingdale became Culture Secretary in place of Sajid Javid, who became Business Secretary. Boris

Portrait of the week | 7 May 2015

Home The country went to the polls. David Cameron, the Conservative leader, prepared by going around with his sleeves rolled up. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, said that his pledges had been cut into an eight-foot slab of limestone. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, took a bus for John O’Groats. Stuart Gulliver, the chief executive of HSBC, said it would take ‘a few months, not years’ to decide whether to move its headquarters out of Britain. Sainsbury’s reported a loss of £72 million for the year, after writing down a fall in the value of some of its shops. Three tons of cocaine, worth perhaps £500 million, were recovered

Portrait of the week | 30 April 2015

Home The British economy grew by 0.3 per cent in the first quarter of 2015, the slowest quarterly growth for two years. The Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out many absurdities in party election promises, noting that most people would see tax and benefit changes that reduced their income; it said that the Conservative and Liberal Democrat plan to increase the personal allowance to £12,500 would not help the 44 per cent of people who now pay no tax, that Labour’s promised 10p tax band would be ‘worth a princely 50 pence a week to most income-tax payers’ and that it could not be sure whether the reintroduction of a

First novels: When romance develops from an old photograph

The intensely lyrical Ghost Moth is set in Belfast in 1969, as the Troubles begin and when Katherine, housewife and mother of four, finds herself remembering an old love affair. Michèle Forbes achieves a vivid depiction of family life — the daily squabbles and teasing, the nuances of Katherine’s love for her children through a haze of exhaustion, one daughter’s struggle to be liked by bullying friends and another’s blushingly awkward first crush. Interwoven with these domestic scenes are chapters set 20 years earlier, in which we see the unfurling of Katherine’s haunting romance. The novel is in part a meditation on differing forms of love, comparing this all-consuming passion,