Why do translators keep us civilised? What does it mean for us – and especially for religious believers – that humans are closely related to both aggressive chimpanzees and pacific, hypersexual bonobos? What can we learn about democracy from the ancient Greeks? How far does it make sense to call the United States an “epicurean republic” – and why is it still so much more religious than almost anywhere else in the developed world?
These are just a few of the topics up for debate in some 60 hour-long video interviews (and accompanying e-books) with leading academics now available from Ideas Roadshow, a project that aims to increase understanding of specific research fields.
All the interviews are conducted by Howard Burton, who has an academic background in both theoretical physics and philosophy and who makes a point of asking the scholars about their background and experience as well as their work.
Ian Stewart, emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick, tells him about the maths behind “colouring networks” and “trotting horses” but also explains how a steady stream of female graduate students from Portugal and Brazil have decisively disproved all theories about an “inherent, biological” element in differences in mathematical ability between the sexes.
Angie Hobbs, professor of the public understanding of philosophy at the University of Sheffield, describes the thousands of emails she receives – testimony to people “absolutely hungering for a more thoughtful, subtle and careful debate about [political] issues…who think that the problems that are facing us are so big that they’re fed up with the smart soundbite”. But she also tells of her unimpressive performance in “a re-enactment of Monty Python’s Philosophers’ Football Match”.
And Stefan Collini, professor of English literature and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge, describes how the famous “two cultures” dispute between C. P. Snow and F. R. Leavis can still illuminate questions of “the value of public dialogue and the role of the modern university”.
Dr Burton served as the founding executive director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, from 1999 to 2007. So what makes him a good interviewer on topics ranging from the First Crusade to “the limits of consciousness”?
Although he puts in “at least three or four days of solid preparation” for each interview, Dr Burton acknowledges that he is “not an expert in any of the areas I talk about – the entire point is not to have experts talking to other experts, since the target audience consists of non-experts [students, teachers, the interested general public and academics keen to find out what ‘the guy down the hall’ does]. It allows me to play the role of curious non-expert and ask basic questions. It’s often helpful to the experts themselves as it forces them to clarify their thoughts in ways they hadn’t realised was necessary.”
Future plans include the release of 35 to 40 new videos each year. The e‑books include the complete unedited texts, detailed references and pedagogic questions to promote discussion. But although the e-books obviously sell to university libraries, the content has also been leased to British Airways and Cathay Pacific for travellers who want to use a long plane journey as an opportunity to catch up on brain science, “Plato’s heaven” or “the cyclic universe”.