Leeuwenhoek: the fabric seller who discovered bacteria
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek opened up a whole new world to us: he was the first to observe bacteria and other microscopic lifeforms which couldn’t be seen by the naked eye. He is now regarded as the father of microbiology and yet he had neither scientific training nor university education, and spent his life first as a linen merchant and then a civil servant in a small Dutch city.
To understand quite how game-changing Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries were, you have to imagine a world where just about everyone on the planet could only see things that were within the range of unaided human eyesight. Magnifying glasses were the preserve of a privileged few, and other optical instruments, such as simple telescopes and microscopes, were rarer still. So it’s little wonder that Leeuwenhoek was met with disbelief when he claimed that he had seen bustling, vibrant lifeforms in what for everyone was just a drop of clear, pure water.
To find out how this extraordinarily curious Dutchman arrived at his discoveries, Rajan Datar is joined by Elisabeth Entjes who is one of the editors of Leeuwenhoek’s Collected Letters, Tiemen Cocquyt who as Curator at the Boerhaave Museum of the history of science in Leiden has a special interest in Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes, and by biochemist and writer Nick Lane who is Professor of Evolutionary Biochemistry at University College London.
Photo: Antonie van Leeuwenhoek's microscope (Rijksmuseum Boerhaave)
Kafka's The Metamorphosis: A man turns into a monstrous bug
A man wakes up in the body of a verminous insect – this is the plot of one of the most celebrated short stories of all time – Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella The Metamorphosis. Dealing with the isolation and absurdity of modern existence, it has fascinated readers all over the world in its openness to varying interpretations, and the way it questions the very norms of society as well as literary form.
Joining Rajan Datar to explore this most enigmatic work is Dr Carolin Duttlinger, the author of four books on Kafka and co-director of the Oxford Kafka research centre, Professor Alice Staskova, native of Kafka’s home city of Prague and specialist on Kafka and music, Dr Peter Zusi from the department of Czech Literature at University College London, and with the contribution of the Nigerian novelist Adrian Igoni Barrett who wrote his own take on The Metamorphosis – about a black man in Lagos who wakes up white.
(Photo: Kafka's The Metamorphosis choreographed and directed by Arthur Pita at the Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, UK. Credit: Robbie Jack/Corbis/Getty Images)
Hugh Masekela: The iconic South African musician
The story of Hugh Masekela’s life is intertwined with the history of South Africa itself. Born into a relatively privileged family in a mining town east of Johannesburg, Masekela was aware from an early age of the separatist and exploitative legacy of colonialism. As he grew up and discovered his love of music, it soon became clear to him that fulfilling his ambitions as a black musician would have to be done far away from the brutal apartheid government which had come to power in 1948.
In his adopted home in the United States, Masekela enjoyed a string of hit records and mixed with the great and the good of the jazz world. By now exiled from South Africa, he used his profile and his music to protest against repression and inequality, and wrote one of the defining songs of the campaign to free Nelson Mandela from prison.
In his musical ventures he brought musicians together from across the African continent, in a spirit of Pan-Africanism which was so important to him. When he eventually returned to South Africa after thirty years away, he continued to rally for causes close to his heart.
Joining Bridget Kendall is jazz historian Dr Lindelwa Dalamba from Wits University in Johannesburg; jazz critic Gwen Ansell and author of Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music, and Politics in South Africa; and the late musician’s nephew and former road manager, Mabusha Masekela.
Photo: Hugh Masekela (BBC/Danielle Peck)
James Watt: The power of steam
In this 200th year since his death, we look at the life and work of James Watt, the Scottish innovator whose ground-breaking ideas helped power the Industrial Revolution and lay the basis for much of the mechanised world we take for granted now. He wasn't the inventor of the first steam engine - that had existed before his time - but his improved steam engine was vastly more efficient than earlier versions. As a result, industrial production rates soared and workplaces were transformed by new machines: changes that were to revolutionise society as well as industry. So who was James Watt? What inspired him and who helped him?
Bridget Kendall talks to historians Dr. Malcolm Dick, Director of the Centre for West Midlands History at the University of Birmingham, and Professor Larry Stewart from the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who specialises in early modern science. She is also joined by curators Val Boa from The McLean Museum in Greenock, Scotland that houses an important James Watt collection, and Ben Russell, Curator of Mechanical Engineering at the Science Museum in London where he looks after a number of Watt-related objects, including his legendary attic workshop.
Steam escaping from a pressure gauge. (mevans/Getty Images)
The Bhagavad Gita: A guide to spiritual wisdom
The Bhagavad Gita didn't start life as an exclusively religious text but over the two thousand years since it was composed the verses have taken on many different layers of meaning. For millions of Hindus today, the Gita has a similar scriptural status to the Quran for Muslims or the Bible for Christians. In the 20th century, others have seen the Gita as a guide to management strategy, a tool for self-help and even a call to arms for Indian independence in the face of British colonial rule.
The story begins on a battlefield with the warrior Prince Arjuna suffering a breakdown. As warring families line up on opposing sides, Arjuna appeals to his charioteer Krishna for help in overcoming this existential crisis. In the 700 verses which follow, Krishna presents his friend with three options: the paths of action, knowledge and devotion.
Joining Bridget is Professor Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad from the University of Lancaster in the UK, Professor Angelika Malinar from the University of Zürich, Switzerland, and from the US Professor Richard Davis, the author of The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography.
Image: Indian art depicting the dialogue between Lord Krishna and Arjuna. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)