The Forum



A world of ideas


  • The Panama Canal: The real story behind the engineering triumph

    29/07/2021 Duração: 39min

    Completed in 1914, the Panama Canal has long been regarded as a triumph of American ingenuity, a conquest over nature that helped secure the United States’ position as a world power. Taking ten years to build, it opened up new trading routes between East and West by providing a vital waterway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But what was the real story behind this challenging engineering project? How were the Panamanians affected? Who were the tens of thousands of workers who built the canal? And what was the environmental impact of work that literally cut through a mountain and redirected two oceans? And with climate change, will the Panama Canal be such a vital waterway in the future? Joining Bridget Kendall, is the Panamanian academic Dr Marixa Lasso, author of “Erased: The Untold Story of the Panama Canal”, the first major book on the Canal from the Panamanian point of view; Julie Greene, Professor of History at the University of Maryland, and the author of “The Canal Builders: Making America’s

  • Ida Pfeiffer: 19th Century globetrotter

    22/07/2021 Duração: 39min

    Ida Pfeiffer's desire to see the world was like many childhood fantasies - destined to remain just that. And yet at the age of 44 once her sons had reached adulthood, she set off from her home in Vienna on a series of journeys that no woman of her time or background had contemplated. Beginning with a trip to the Middle East, Pfeiffer travelled mostly alone, documenting her voyages and collecting specimens that she later sold to help finance her adventures abroad. Budget travel was her mantra, as she was not a wealthy aristocrat like many travellers of that time. On her journeys Pfeiffer was attacked, kidnapped, robbed and almost drowned. She met head-hunters and endured extreme conditions to pursue her dream. Defying all convention, Pfeiffer became celebrated as the most travelled woman on the planet, circumnavigating the globe twice. But despite her trailblazing attitude, she was no feminist, believing that women should be either professionals or home-builders, not both. Rajan Datar discusses the life o

  • Rain or shine? A short history of the weather forecast

    15/07/2021 Duração: 39min

    How did we get from not having any reliable way of predicting the weather just 150 years ago, to today's accurate, tailor-made forecasts for places as small as a village? Bridget Kendall and guests trace the history of meteorology, from its first steps as an aid to quicker trans-Atlantic shipping to the latest methods which can help anticipate weather events as short-lived as a tornado. Bridget is joined by Kristine Harper, a former US Navy forecaster and now a history professor at Florida State University; Peter Gibbs who started out as a meteorologist with the British Antarctic Survey and the UK's Met Office before becoming one of the best known weather forecasters on BBC radio and television; and Peter Moore, a writer and historian with a particular interest in weather discoveries of the 19th century. Photo: A hurricane is seen from the International Space Station. (Scott Kelly/NASA via Getty Images)

  • Emile Berliner, inventor of the gramophone

    08/07/2021 Duração: 40min

    A young immigrant to the USA who started out working in a draper's shop, Emile Berliner ended up paving the way for the world of recordings and home entertainment that we delight in today. But even before he got to work on his recording machine - which he would later call the gramophone - Berliner made a major contribution to another piece of technology that's very familiar to us today: the telephone. And not content with all these achievements, he also promoted the pasteurisation of milk, financed a major scholarship for women to pursue academic research and tried to develop a working helicopter. So how did Berliner come up with these ideas? Why was he at one point prevented from selling his gramophones and records? And why is his name less well known today than those of his contemporaries Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell? Bridget Kendall is joined by three Berliner experts: Dr. Anja Borck, director of the Musee des ondes Emile Berliner in Montreal; Sam Brylawski, former head of recor

  • Tracing the roots of ancient trees

    01/07/2021 Duração: 39min

    Have you ever sat against the trunk of a large old tree, looked up into its canopy and wondered what it’s seen in its lifetime? There are many species of tree that survive well beyond a human lifespan, for hundreds of years, and some that can live far longer than that, spanning millennia. What can we learn from large old trees around the world? How do they influence the environment? And how can we preserve them for future generations? Joining Bridget Kendall to discuss ancient trees are Peter Crane, former director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London; Valerie Trouet, Professor at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona in the US; and conservation biologist, Michael Gaige. Produced by Jo Impey for BBC World Service Image: A Bristlecone Pine, one of the oldest living organisms on earth Image credit: Piriya Photography / Getty Images

  • The Wizard of Oz: A homegrown American fairy tale

    24/06/2021 Duração: 39min

    The Wizard of Oz is best known as one of the most watched films of all time, or as one of its many re-incarnations, such as the hugely successful Broadway musical Wicked or the Soviet, The Wizard of the Emerald City. But fewer people nowadays may be aware of the original book by the American writer L. Frank Baum that inspired these stories about a young girl who travels through a magic land in the company of a talking scarecrow, a tin man and a fearful lion. While he was a controversial figure, it was L. Frank Baum’s ideas about social justice and rights for women which pervade not just The Wizard of Oz but also its sequels, and explain why this story in its many forms has inspired many minority groups, from the African American to the LGBT communities. Joining Bridget Kendall is Michael Patrick Hearn, considered to be the world’s leading Oz scholar, and author of The Annotated Wizard of Oz; Dr Sally Roesch Wagner, who specialises in the feminist aspects of The Wizard of Oz including the influence of Frank

  • Falconry: The history of hunting with birds of prey

    17/06/2021 Duração: 39min

    The practice of hunting with birds of prey is thought to stretch back thousands of years. In early nomadic societies, falconry was used to hunt animals to provide food and clothing in places such as the steppes of Central Asia. As the practice spread, falconry evolved into a pastime that attracted the elite of European society, reflected in the extensive iconography of noblemen and women and their falcons. Today falconry is found in more than 90 countries around the world. At its core remains the importance of the relationship between falconer and the bird of prey, a bond unlike any other between man and beast. But although falconry has been classed as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, there are challenges to its survival. And some argue that falconry itself is exploitative. Rajan Datar is joined by the president of the International Association for Falconry, His Excellency Majid al-Mansouri; Adrian Lombard, Chair of the South African Falconry Association; art historian Anne-Lise Tropato, the first

  • Aramaic: an imperial language without an empire

    10/06/2021 Duração: 39min

    Aramaic is a language that for some three thousand years facilitated the exchange of ideas across large tracts of the Middle East and Asia. In its heyday it was the main official and written language across the Neo-Assyrian and Achaemenid empires. It was the language in which several sections of the Old Testament Bible were written. A Galilean dialect of Aramaic was probably the language Jesus spoke. Different dialects of Aramaic still exist today but numbers of speakers are dwindling and there are fears that it could die out. So what is the story of Aramaic? Why did it become so influential and then go into decline? And how much has it changed over its long history? Bridget Kendall is joined by three distinguished scholars of Aramaic: Professor Holger Gzella from Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich is the author of numerous publications on Aramaic as well as being an expert on other Old Testament languages. Professor Alison Salvesen from Oxford University works on ancient interpretations of the Hebre

  • X-rays: New ways of seeing

    03/06/2021 Duração: 39min

    The discovery of X-rays by the German scientist Wilhelm Roentgen in 1895 was nothing short of ground-breaking, opening up a new era in medicine. For the first time, doctors could see inside the human body without the need for surgery, and diagnose many more living patients. X-rays had major implications for physics as well, allowing scientists to study the structure and arrangement of molecules. Within wider society, they inspired artists to explore what these new rays could tell us about the representation of reality. It wasn’t long before X-rays were being used to scan baggage, in airport security and even in shoe shops to measure feet before exposure to radiation was properly understood. Huge strides in X-ray technology have given us the type of modern scans that are used today to detect conditions such as cancer. Joining Bridget Kendall are Drs Adrian Thomas and Arpan Banerjee, both radiologists who’ve collaborated on publications about the history of X-rays, and artist Susan Aldworth who’s used brain

  • Machiavelli, master of power

    27/05/2021 Duração: 39min

    Over five hundred years ago, dismissed diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli produced his most famous work, The Prince. Written on the fringes of the Italian city of Florence, the book has long been read as a priceless guide to power and what holding it truly involves. But who was the man behind the work? Why did he claim that a leader must be prepared to act immorally? And why did the name of this one-time political insider become a byword for cunning and sinister strategy? Rajan Datar explores the life and impact of Machiavelli’s The Prince with writer and scholar Erica Benner, historian professor Quentin Skinner, and journalist and novelist David Ignatius. [Image: Circa 1499, Niccolò Machiavelli. Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

  • The birth of the modern car

    20/05/2021 Duração: 39min

    The motor car is a feature of contemporary life the world over but when and where did motor vehicles begin? How did we get from the slow, noisy, dangerous, early vehicles of the 19th century to the swish, sleek, practical cars of today? Why did the early electric vehicle – so popular early on and the first car to go faster than a hundred kilometres an hour - suddenly fall out of favour? And who were the early engineers whose major contributions to car design deserve to be better known? These are some of the questions that Bridget Kendall asks three automotive experts: writer and broadcaster Giles Chapman is the award-winning author of 55 books on car history, culture and design; Larry Edsall also has many automotive books to his name; he has written about cars for many American newspapers and is founding editor at; and Gundula Tutt is a leading German restorer of historic vehicles whose work graces many public and private museums. She has a particular interest in the science and technology of

  • Ukulele - a history of Hawaii's national instrument

    13/05/2021 Duração: 39min

    Throughout its 130-year-old history, the ukulele has often been underrated – for many, this tiny four stringed instrument is a musical joke, a plastic toy or a cheap airport souvenir, but in fact, some of the world’s greatest musicians have played and admired it, and it has enduring associations with the struggle for Hawaiian independence since its arrival on the islands from Madeira in the late 19th century. The ukulele is also surprisingly versatile and musicians are forever involved in the challenge of expanding its repertoire, from Bach to ukulele concertos to jazz. Joining Bridget Kendall to find out more about this deceptively humble instrument is the award-winning musician Brittni Paiva, who’s been described as Hawaii’s pre-eminent ukulele artist; Jim Beloff, the co-founder of Flea Market Music, publishers of some of the first ukulele song books which played a key part in the modern ukulele revival, his forthcoming memoir is UKEtopia: Adventures in the Ukulele World; and Samantha Muir, a classical uku

  • Tadeusz Kosciuszko, groundbreaking fort builder

    06/05/2021 Duração: 39min

    The American president Thomas Jefferson called Tadeusz Kosciuszko ‘as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known’. Kosciuszko was born in what is today Belarus, trained as an engineer in Poland and France and went on to become one of the important military players in the American War of Independence. This was when he wasn’t pursuing his dream of a free Polish republic against the might of a conservative aristocracy and neighbouring Russian and Prussian armies. Or campaigning against slavery and feudalism. Testimonials like that of Jefferson’s lauding his humility, energy and high moral principles flowed from around the world. He was toasted as a celebrity in London by the likes of Keats and Coleridge. In the USA and Europe there are bridges, statues and monuments in his name. And yet today Kosciuszko is relatively unknown outside of Poland. Rajan Datar aims to change that with the aid of three Kosciuszko experts: Dr. Betsey Blakeslee, President of the Friends of the American Revolution at West Point, an org

  • The census: A snapshot of life

    29/04/2021 Duração: 39min

    Anyone who has ever researched their family tree will have most likely come across the census, the process by which every citizen or subject of a country is counted and classified. Data collected by the census, often carried out every ten years, has been invaluable to genealogists, both amateur and professional. And the census has also developed into an essential tool for governments and organisations to plan how and where they focus their investment in public services such as health care and schools. Inventories of people are known to stretch back to antiquity in places such as Egypt and China, and asked for very basic information for the purposes of tax collection or military service. The modern-day census, however, focuses on questions that touch far more on an individual’s identity and has often been controversial. Now that modern technology makes population data easily accessible in a variety of forms, some are questioning whether there is a need for censuses at all. Bridget Kendall is joined by Dr K

  • Unravelling the history of knitting

    22/04/2021 Duração: 40min

    Like many traditional domestic crafts, knitting has experienced a huge surge in popularity in the 21st century, making it fashionable and even radical. But the history of hand knitting is still relatively obscure. The oldest knitted artefacts are Coptic socks found in Egypt dating from the fourth century AD, but although they look like modern-day knitting, they’re actually made using a technique called nalebinding or needle-binding. So what then are the real origins of knitting? How did it develop into so many different regional patterns, from the famous Fair Isle of Scotland to distinctive Nordic and South American variations? Joining Bridget Kendall to discuss the global history of knitting are Professor Sandy Black of the University of the Arts London, Norwegian textile designer, Annemor Sundbo, and an expert on South American knitting, Cynthia LeCount Samaké. Produced by Jo Impey for the BBC World Service. Image: Knitting on Taquile Island, Peru Image credit: Hadynyah / Getty Images

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude: The story of Latin America

    15/04/2021 Duração: 39min

    Considered to be one of literature’s supreme achievements, One Hundred Years of Solitude by the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez is reported to be the most popular work of Spanish-language fiction since Don Quixote in the 17th century. Written in 1967, it tells the story of seven generations of the Buendía family, whose patriarch is the founder of a fictional Colombian village called Macondo. But why is it said this novel – which fuses the fantastical and the real – tells the story of Latin America and has given an entire continent its voice? Joining Bridget Kendall are Ilan Stavans, Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College in Massachusetts, in the United States, and the biographer of Gabriel García Márquez; María del Pilar Blanco, Associate Professor in Spanish American literature at Oxford University, and Parvati Nair, Professor of Hispanic, Cultural and Migration studies at Queen Mary, University of London. Produced: Anne Khazam (Photo: Partial view of a mural painti

  • Rabindranath Tagore: The Bard of Bengal

    08/04/2021 Duração: 39min

    So prodigious was the polymath Rabindranath Tagore, there’s a saying in Bengal that one lifetime is not enough to consume all of his work. Poet, playwright, thinker, activist, educator, social reformer, composer, artist… the list of his talents is long. Today his name is known all over India and Bangladesh; children recite his poetry at school and his legacy lives on in many different ways. When he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore was feted for a time by American and European literary figures who saw in him someone who embodied Western preconceptions of a mystic Oriental sage. As a result of his newfound fame outside India, Tagore travelled widely and exchanged ideas with many celebrated world leaders and thinkers from Einstein to Gandhi. Today Tagore’s thoughts on education and his stance vis-à-vis the natural world and our relationship to the environment are seen as remarkably forward-looking. Rajan Datar is joined by Kathleen O’Connell, retired lecturer

  • Pauline Viardot: 19th-Century diva

    01/04/2021 Duração: 38min

    While the name of Pauline Viardot may be unfamiliar to many, in her lifetime she was one of the most celebrated performers in Europe. Her interpretation of Orpheus in a revival of Gluck’s opera made the writer Charles Dickens weep, and the novelist George Sand said that whenever she heard Pauline Viardot sing, nothing else mattered. In addition to her vocal talents, Pauline Viardot dazzled in high society. She knew almost everybody who came to define 19th Century European culture, thanks to the regular salon she held with her husband in their Parisian townhouse. Acclaimed poets, musicians, composers, artists and even royalty would come to take tea, listen to music, network, perform and share ideas. Alas there are no recordings of her magnificent voice, even though her later years coincided with the beginning of the recording industry. But today Pauline Viardot’s legacy is being rediscovered as a composer, with works that were performed at her salons reaching new audiences. Bridget Kendall is joined by Hilar

  • The One Thousand and One Nights

    25/03/2021 Duração: 40min

    The One Thousand and One Nights are a collection of fantastical stories of flying carpets, magic and genies whose ancient origins go back to the 7th century or earlier. The tales are told by Scheherazade who uses the power of storytelling night after night to stop her Sultan husband from beheading her. These highly influential stories were brought to the West in the 18th century, when more tales like Aladdin and Ali Baba were said to have been added by the French translator, and it has continued to evolve over the centuries. Rajan Datar and guests explore why these stories became so popular around the world and what they mean to us today. Joining Rajan is Wen Chin Ouyang, Professor of Arabic at SOAS in London; Dr Sandra Naddaff, senior lecturer in Comparative Literature at Harvard University; and the Iranian TV producer Shabnam Rezaei. [Photo: Sand Sculpture depicting 1001 Nights of Sheherazade. Credit: Getty Images]

  • Adventures with dentures: The story of dentistry

    18/03/2021 Duração: 39min

    Until the eighteenth century there were no professional dentists. The only way to deal with a serious case of toothache was to call on the services of blacksmiths, travelling showmen or so-called barber-surgeons, all of whom had a sideline in tooth extraction. But in 1728, French physician Pierre Fauchard published the first complete scientific description of dentistry and he is credited as being “the father of modern dentistry”. His book, Le Chirurgien Dentiste or The Surgeon Dentist, was translated into several languages. Joining Rajan Datar to discuss the painful and sometimes gruesome history of humans and their teeth are Dr. Scott Swank of the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, US; Rachel Bairsto, Head of Museum Services at the British Dental Association and Professor Dominik Gross of RWTH Aachen University in Germany. [Image: Detail from Tearer of Teeth or The Tooth Puller by David Ryjckaert III (1612-1661). Credit: David Dyjckaert III / Buyenlarge / Getty Images]

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