Life, Energy and Thermal vents (Start the Week)

radioBroadcaster: BBC Radio 4

Year: 2015

Genre: Radio, Discussion


This episode of the regular Radio 4 programme Start the Week (45 mins) has an unusually biological focus. The studio guests are all authors of books or poems about biological matters.

  • Nick Lane (UCL) is author of several popular science books, including Life Ascending and the new The Vital Question: Why is life the way it is? Amongst other things, he discusses the importance of singular event – eukaryotic cell engulfing bacteria cell that became mitochondria – in the development of complex life.
  • Helen Scales has a particular interest in molluscs. She discusses their versatility and offers insights into organisms that live on hydrothermal vents. Her second book Spirals in Time (about shells) is published shortly.
  • Luke Rendell (St Andrews) is author of The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins. He discusses the social life of ocean going mammals.
  • Poet Laureate Andrew Motion has had a poem about seahorses commissioned by London Zoo. He notes that they are often killed accidentally, but are also sought after by practitioners of alternative medicines. They also, it is noted, have the “bad luck of looking beautiful when dead”.

The programme finishes with an interesting brief discussion on the importance of language use in science, particularly the attractions and danger of metaphor. Metaphor can bring to life notions that it is hard for people to follow (Lane notes that most biochemistry, for example, is too small to see). and science. Motion acknowledges the inherent tension in marrying the language of hard science with lyric poetry, which Shelley had observed is “vitally metaphoric”. Even the fact that we term a group of whales a “school” is value-laden. The suggestion is made that there is a “sweet spot” in the appropriate use of metaphor such that it adds value without becoming a limit to enquiry.

This is not a programme that you would want to sit a class down to listen to together, but it would be a valuable 45 minutes for A level or undergraduate students interested in science communication.


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