Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss William Herschel (1738 – 1822) and his sister Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848) who were born in Hanover and made their reputation in Britain. William was one of the most eminent astronomers in British history. Although he started life as a musician, as a young man he became interested in studying the night sky. With an extraordinary talent, he constructed telescopes that were able to see further and more clearly than any others at the time. He is most celebrated today for discovering the planet Uranus and detecting what came to be known as infrared radiation. Caroline also became a distinguished astronomer, discovering several comets and collaborating with her brother.
Professor of Planetary and Space Sciences at the Open University
Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge and an Emeritus Fellow of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge
Keeper Emeritus at the Science Museum in London.
Studio producer: John Goudie
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the simple animals which informed Charles Darwin's first book, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, published in 1842. From corals, Darwin concluded that the Earth changed very slowly and was not fashioned by God. Now coral reefs, which some liken to undersea rainforests, are threatened by human activity, including fishing, pollution and climate change.
Senior Research Fellow in Genetics at University College London
Lecturer in Marine Biology at the University of Plymouth
Associate Professor in Marine Biology at Bangor University School of Ocean Sciences
Producer Simon Tilllotson.
The Manhattan Project
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the race to build an atom bomb in the USA during World War Two. Before the war, scientists in Germany had discovered the potential of nuclear fission and scientists in Britain soon argued that this could be used to make an atom bomb, against which there could be no defence other than to own one. The fear among the Allies was that, with its head start, Germany might develop the bomb first and, unmatched, use it on its enemies. The USA took up the challenge in a huge engineering project led by General Groves and Robert Oppenheimer and, once the first bomb had been exploded at Los Alamos in July 1945, it appeared inevitable that the next ones would be used against Japan with devastating results.
The image above is of Robert Oppenheimer and General Groves examining the remains of one the bases of the steel test tower, at the atomic bomb Trinity Test site, in September 1945.
Bruce Cameron Reed
The Charles A. Dana Professor of Physics Emeritus at Alma College, Michigan
Founder and President of the Atomic Heritage Foundation
Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford
Producer: Simon Tillotson
The Evolution of Crocodiles
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the remarkable diversity of the animals that dominated life on land in the Triassic, before the rise of the dinosaurs in the Jurassic, and whose descendants are often described wrongly as 'living fossils'. For tens of millions of years, the ancestors of alligators and Nile crocodiles included some as large as a bus, some running on two legs like a T Rex and some that lived like whales. They survived and rebounded from a series of extinction events but, while the range of habitats of the dinosaur descendants such as birds covers much of the globe, those of the crocodiles have contracted, even if the animals themselves continue to evolve today as quickly as they ever have.
Research Leader in Life Sciences and Dean of Postgraduate Education at the Natural History Museum
Lecturer in the Department of Earth Sciences at University College London
Professor of Palaeontology and Evolution at the University of Edinburgh
Producer Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the search for Longitude while at sea. Following efforts by other maritime nations, the British Government passed the Longitude Act in 1714 to reward anyone who devised reliable means for ships to determine their longitude at sea. Mariners could already calculate how far they were north or south, the Latitude, using the Pole Star, but voyaging across the Atlantic to the Caribbean was much less predictable as navigators could not be sure how far east or west they were, a particular problem when heading for islands. It took fifty years of individual genius and collaboration in Britain and across Europe, among astronomers, clock makers, mathematicians and sailors, for the problem to be resolved.
Principal Curator of Science at National Museums Scotland
Keeper Emeritus at the Science Museum
Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge
Producer: Simon Tillotson