Category: science and philosophy

Of love and betrayal

It’s probably the right time of year to re-post a link to this interview with Robin Dunbar of Oxford University from a few years back (I’m deducing this from the fact that I’ve already had Valentine’s wishes from charities and memory card suppliers today and been invited to ‘fall in love with’ an ‘air-conditioning solution’, so something is clearly in the air).

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GM: It has to be said that in the mammalian world, promiscuity certainly has the upper hand over monogamy..

RD: Yes, this is mainly a consequence of the fact that mammals opted for internal gestation followed by lactation. That makes it very difficult for the males to do very much because there isn’t much in the form of parental engagement that they can engage in.

It may not increase your romantic instincts on Valentine’s Day, but what Robin has to say about pairbonding is fascinating. You’ll also find out why a good sense of humour is so often mentioned in dating profiles and what the origins of kissing are…

Julian Baggini on the Edge of Reason

“We have lost our reason,” writes philosopher Julian Baggini in the introduction to his latest book, The Edge of Reason, “and our loss is no accident. Gradually, the contemporary West has become more and more dismissive of the power of reason. Caring for it less, we often find we have left it behind.”

baggini-edge-of-reason-coverThe book explores some of the causes and consequences of this loss, and suggests ways in which we can reclaim reason, perhaps counter-intuitively by making “deflationary” (i.e. quite modest, or at least qualified) claims for it. Baggini acknowledges that reason has its limitations, and cannot in the real world be reduced to some abstract model or algorithm. Human beings are irrational in a host of ways, he argues, but reason remains our most powerful tool to tackle the problems – political and ethical – that our complex modern societies face: reason is a means of finding common ground.

Baggini quotes psychologist Dan Ariely with approval: “We are limited, we are not perfect, we are irrational in all kinds of ways. But we can build a world that is compatible with this that gets us to make better decisions rather than worse decisions. That’s my hope.”

At several points in the book, Baggini emphasises the value of careful attending, in other words, listening, tuning in, rather than seeking to devise a knock-down argument. So listen in now to what he has to say about recovering reason. I recorded this podcast with Julian at home in Bristol a few weeks ago.

Ted Nield on Supercontinent

Nield Supercontinent coverWith the same inevitability as the shifting tectonic plates perhaps, my podcast backlist seems to have drifted off iTunes and disappeared beneath the waves. So I am intending to use the opportunity, which did not initially come as welcome news, to gradually re-present all my interviews from the past ten years. They may not all arrive in chronological order, but this was definitely the first interview with which Podularity kicked off on Hallowe’en 2007.

Here’s what I said about the podcast first time round:

Ten billion years in the life of our planet. That’s the subject of this first Podularity podcast. And all in a little over 17 minutes … Alert readers may already object that it’s impossible to cover 10 billion years, as the Earth is only six billion years old. (If you are objecting that the Earth is a great deal younger than that, then this podcast is probably not going to appeal to you.) However, Ted Nield’s new book, Supercontinent, looks not only deep into the past by examining the geological record, but also peers into the planet’s far-distant future.

And here’s what Simon Winchester said about Ted’s book in his review of it:

The four-dimensional complexities of our happy little planet – “earth’s immeasurable surprise” – are made elegantly accessible by Ted Nield in this truly exceptional book. At least until the next major discovery it deserves to become the standard work, ideal for students of the subject, and hugely enjoyable to those for whom the world remains an unfathomable enigma.

Craig Stanford on Planet without Apes


“Evolutionary success is not a birthright nor is it a guarantor of survival in perpetuity. Natural selection wrought the living ape species, and like all animals their time on Earth is limited by changing environments, the emergence of competing species, predators, and the like. Some species cope well in a variety of environments. Such generalists are often abundant and hang around for many millions of years. Other species lack such evolved-in versatility. Nearly all of the billions of creatures that have ever lived are now extinct, and the vast majority of ape species are just a few more members of the club. We may some day join them. But until that distant day comes, this Earth is all we have, and the four great apes will be our only extended family. Along with their very distant relatives, dolphins and elephants, they are the most socially complex creatures with whom we share our world.”
Craig Standford, Planet without Apes

Craig Stanford, Uganda, 2010Professor Craig Stanford’s recent book, Planet without Apes (Harvard University Press), looks at the plight of our four closest relatives – the chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla, and orang utan – all of which have been driven to the brink of extinction through the destruction of their habitat, poaching, and disease. (2011 estimates put their combined numbers in the wild at between 300 and 400,000.) Craig’s message in the book is not despairing, but it is stark – urgent, coordinated action is needed if we are to avoid eradicating within decades these highly social animals whose intelligence and culture we have only recently begun to understand.

[Picture credits: chimpanzee – Craig Stanford; author in Uganda – Erin Moore. Reproduced with thanks.]

(This is the first in a projected new series of “five-minute podcasts”: I’m aware that I overshot that limit in this instance but the magic five minutes is probably a goal to work towards rather than a target to expect to hit first time… I could easily have asked Craig questions for an hour – I’ve long been interested in primatology – but I’m hoping to expand the podcast audience by giving listeners just enough to whet their appetite and also reason to go and explore the books discussed.)



Julian Baggini: The Philosopher in the Kitchen – 1. Practical Wisdom and hummus

Here is the first of four short films I made with Julian Baggini last summer and released last month to coincide with the paperback edition of his book, The Virtues of the Table. In this first film he asks: Do we really need to follow recipes?


Julian Baggini: The Philosopher in the Kitchen – 1. Practical Wisdom (Hummus) from George Miller on Vimeo.

Graham Farmelo on Churchill’s Bomb

Graham Farmelo

I thought this might be an appropriate time to re-post my interview with Graham Farmelo from December 2013 about Winston Churchill’s interest in science and in particular nuclear weapons. Click on the player above to listen to the interview. Here’s what I said about the book in my introduction:

Graham Farmelo Churchill's BombI first became aware of Graham’s work a decade ago at Granta, where he had that rarest of things, a bestseller about equations, called It Must Be Beautiful. I interviewed him a few years ago for the Faber podcast when his biography of fellow physicist Paul Dirac came out; that book, entitled The Strangest Man, won the 2009 Costa Biography Award and the 2010 Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize. Graham and I met up again recently at Faber’s offices in Bloomsbury to talk about his new book, Churchill’s Bomb, a fascinating and pacy story of how Britain became a nuclear power, seen through the lens of Winston Churchill’s career.

Graham shows that Churchill’s interest in science – especially as it applied to the changing nature of warfare – ran all the way through his career. He was a devoted reader and sometime friend of that great speculator on the future, H.G. Wells. And Churchill himself pondered the nuclear question in his writing. In 1937, He contemplated the destructive potential that science’s mastery of nature held out – at a time when many scientists still doubted a nuclear bomb was achievable – and asked “Are we fit for it?”

Churchill’s Bomb provides an absorbing exploration of what happens when scientists encounter the pragmatic world of politics, and of whether politicians can cope with the power that scientists were increasingly able to place in their hands. As Graham says in this interview: ‘the availability of nuclear energy at the time when the world was plunged into its biggest conflict was one of the cruellest tricks that fate played on the human race in the twentieth century’. The book is also the story of how the centre of nuclear physics shifted from Britain to the United States, and the coming into being of post-war geopolitics in which nuclear capability would loom so large.

Sunny Brain, Rainy Brain – the science of optimism

“The core components of optimism surprisingly don’t really have too much to do with positive thinking at all. One of the major components actually is a sense of control; what psychologists have found is that optimists are people who have a sense that they’re in control of their own destiny […] there are lots of experiments demonstrating that that’s one of the reasons why optimism is so beneficial, and in fact even some experiments have shown that sometimes that sense of control is an illusion, but nevertheless, even though it’s an illusion, it still has a bit of a benefit.”

Rainy Brain Sunny Brain coverElaine Fox is professor of cognitive and affective psychology at the University of Oxford. In this interview (recorded in summer 2012, when Elaine was still at the University of Essex) she talks about her book, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: The New Science of Optimism and Pessimism, in which she explores such questions as: how does having an optimistic or a pessimistic outlook affect the successes and failures in our lives? How do small biases to look on the bright or the dark side become confirmed, even ingrained? What part do genes play in all this and how do they interact with environmental factors? And if we find ourselves on the pessimistic part of the spectrum, how can we nudge ourselves in a more positive direction?

Jon Ronson on The Psychopath Test

Early on in his book The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson writes:

I’d never really thought much about psychopaths before that moment and I wondered if I should try and meet some. It seemed extraordinary that there were people out there whose neurological condition, according to James’s story, made them so terrifying, like a wholly malevolent space creature from a sci-fi movie. Psychopath-Test cover detailI vaguely remembered hearing psychologists say there was a preponderance of psychopaths at the top, in the corporate and political worlds – a clinical absence of empathy being a benefit in those environments. Could that really be true? And I decided, no, it would be a mistake to start meddling in the world of psychopaths, an especially big mistake for someone like me who suffers from a massive surfeit of anxiety.

Having explored the world of extremists in Them, and the wilder shores of the US military’s psychic operations in The Men who Stare at Goats, Jon decided to turn his attention to psychopaths. In this entertaining interview, he explains why. To listen, click here.

And to read the first chapter of the book, click here.

Paranormality: investigating the impossible with Richard Wiseman

paranormalityMy guest on this podcast is psychologist (and former magician) Richard Wiseman, who has long been interested in why people are fascinated by the paranormal – and willing to believe things for which there is not a shred of scientific evidence. The result of his interest is Paranormality, a book which lifts the lid on the tricks that psychics and mindreaders play and investigates why humans developed and retained a readiness to believe the impossible. In the podcast he explains how he rose to the challenge of investigating Hampton Court Palace’s ghost

To listen to the podcast, click here.

From imaginary beasts to barely imagined beings…

barely imagined beingsCaspar Henderson‘s 21st-century bestiary, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, is one of the most imaginatively conceived and beautifully produced books I have come across in the past couple of years. In the introduction, Caspar describes how the book was inspired when he was on a riverside picnic – Alice-style – in Oxford a few years ago. He had been reading Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, and having leafed through this book, fell asleep.

Then, he writes: ‘I woke with the thought that many real animals are stranger than imaginary ones, and it is our knowledge and understanding of them that are too cramped and fragmentary to accommodate them: we have barely imagined them.’ And so was conceived this A-Z of weird and wonderful creatures – all of them real – and their unfamiliar ways of being in the world.

To listen to the podcast, click here.