A heartfelt plug for “A history of the world in 100 objects”

Statue of Ramesses II at the British Museum
Ramesses II at the British Museum

The BBC in conjunction with the British Museum is putting on a new series this year, “A history of the world in 100 objects”. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, has chosen 100 objects from their remarkable collection to illustrate the sweep of human history, ranging from early stone axes through modern icons such as credit cards. Each object gets a 15 minute episode broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and available on-line and as a podcast.

They’ve finish 4 weeks (or 20 episodes), and the objects and their stories have been consistently engaging and informative. Some standouts have been the carving of the swimming reindeer, the Egyptian clay model of cattle, and the Rhind mathematical papyrus, but it’s awfully hard to choose favorites when the quality has been this good. If I had to pick just one out of what they’ve broadcast so far, it would probably be the Jomon pot episode. This type of pottery changed the way we understood the development of this crucial technology, and the way these objects were revered in Japan thousands of years later is quite wonderful. This particular pot, made some 7,000 years ago, was valued so highly a few hundred years ago that it was lined with gold and incorporated into the tea ceremony.

I’ve been to the British Museum several times over the years, and taken way too many photos there. (A few on my “main” Flickr account, and way too many on my events account.) One thing that’s been cool about the series is that in the first 20 episodes there was only one object that I remember seeing and actually photographed: The statue of Ramesses II up above. He’s huge and pretty hard to miss there next to the Rosetta Stone. Many of the objects in the series have been small and subtle, however, which nicely illustrates the value of a cool program like this. Some objects are pretty remarkable in and of themselves, but others benefit enormously from a guide who suggests we slow down and really look at this stone or that statue. Here MacGregor and his guests help us understand the significance, context, and impact of these objects, and totally make me want to go back to the Museum and seek these treasures out.

There are some other objects in the series that I’ve seen and photographed (such as the Assyrian Reliefs below), but most of them will be new to me. I’m eagerly looking forward to the remaining 80 episodes!

And the world just keeps rolling along
Detail from Assyrian Reliefs in the British Museum

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You’d almost think women were important

Deep in conversation (Deep thoughts)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Unhindered by Talent
In catching up on a bunch of old podcasts (I’m as behind there as I am on posting here), I ran across a very interesting Science Talk podcast from July 30 featuring “an interview with IEEE Spectrum editor in chief, Glenn Zorpette, talks about high-tech attempts to battle improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq as well as the state of reconstruction of Iraq’s electricity grid”. There’s lots of cool geeky stuff about blowing things up, and the high-tech ways people are developing to stop them. Perhaps the most interesting (and significant) bit, though, is at the end, where “journalist John Horgan talks about the possibility of eliminating war”. His position is that war isn’t an inevitable consequence of human nature, and that we might be able to construct a world where we’re much less likely to want to blow each other up. Two key points he mentioned were:

  • Democracies are very unlikely to attack other democracies. So more democracies for the win?
  • Countries that educate girls and women tend to greatly reduce the risk of conflict.

On a vaguely related point, a SciAm 60 Second Science podcast from way back in late May looks (briefly) at some of the significant problems that researchers are having getting women, especially older women, involved in medical trials.

Women were also more likely than men to say that they’re too old or not healthy enough [to participate in a trial] … But women over 65 are one of the fasted growing segments of the population. … our ability to improve care, develop new treatments and find cures depends on research and educating aging women about their role in medical breakthroughs.

Damn – women are apparently important! Treating half the population like dirt is not only ethically dodgy – it has negative practical consequences as well!


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