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The Reith Lectures

Significant international thinkers deliver the BBC's flagship annual lecture series. This year, Stuart Russell explores the future of AI and asks: how can we get it right?

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Why Do Doctors Fail?

Surgeon and writer Atul Gawande explores the nature of fallibility and suggests that preventing avoidable mistakes is a key challenge for the future of medicine.Through the story of a life-threatening condition which affected his own baby son, Dr. Gawande suggests that the medical profession needs to understand how best to deploy the enormous arsenal of knowledge which it has acquired. And his challenge for global health is to address the inequalities in access to resources and expertise both within and between countries.This first of four lectures was recorded before an audience at the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dr. Gawande's home town of Boston in Massachusetts. The other lectures are recorded in London, Edinburgh and Delhi.The series is introduced and chaired by Sue Lawley. The producer is Jim Frank.

41mins

25 Nov 2014

Rank #1

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The Freedom of the Will

In the final lecture of his series 'Minds, Brains and Science', John Searle, Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, examines the evidence for and against the existence of free will. In this lecture entitled 'The Freedom of the Will' Professor Searle attempts to explain why human beings stubbornly believe in their own freedom of action and debates the philosophy of free will. He concludes his Reith Lectures trying to characterise the relationship between the perceptions of self and the world around us.

29mins

12 Dec 1984

Rank #2

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Reith Revisited: Grayson Perry on Nikolaus Pevsner

'The Englishness of English Art' was the theme of the 1955 BBC Reith lectures by art historian Nikolaus Pevsner. Sarah Montague discusses them with Grayson Perry, the artist who himself was a Reith Lecturer in 2013.In Reith Revisited, Radio 4 assesses the contributions of great minds of the past to public debate, in a dialogue across the decades with contemporary thinkers. In 1948, households across Britain gathered before the wireless as the pre-eminent public intellectual of the age, the philosopher Bertrand Russell delivered a set of lectures in honour of the BBC's founder, Lord Reith. Since then, the Reith Lectures on the Home Service and subsequently Radio 4 have become a major national occasion for intellectual debate. In this series Radio 4 revisits five of the speakers from the first ten years of the Reith Lectures.Producer: Neil KoenigResearcher: Josephine Casserley

15mins

28 Sep 2017

Rank #3

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Law's Expanding Empire

Jonathan Sumption argues that the law is taking over the space once occupied by politics. Lord Sumption was until recently a justice of the UK’s Supreme Court, as well as being a distinguished historian. In this lecture, recorded before an audience at Middle Temple in London, Lord Sumption says that until the 19th century, law only dealt with a narrow range of human problems. That has now changed radically. And he argues that the growth of the law, driven by demand for greater personal security and less risk, means we have less liberty.The Reith Lectures are presented and chaired by Anita Anand and produced by Jim Frank Editor: Hugh Levinson

57mins

21 May 2019

Rank #4

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Technology will Determine the Future of the Human Race

This year's Reith Lecturer is the distinguished engineer, Lord Broers. Alec Broers is President of the Royal Academy of Engineering and Chairman of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee. He was a pioneer of nanotechnology and the first person to use the scanning electron microscope for the fabrication of micro-miniature structures.Lord Broers delivers the first of his five Reith Lectures in which he sets out his belief that technology can and should hold the key to the future. He argues that man's way of life has depended on technology since the beginning of civilization - the flint stone, the control of fire, the wheel, the printing press, but are we coping with the newest cascade of technological advances that are happening now? Lord Broers examines the social implications of the advances and argues that it has become essential that we study their social consequences. He believes that if poverty and disease are to be alleviated and the environment sustained, then technology must be harnessed on a vast and all inclusive scale.

42mins

6 Apr 2005

Rank #5

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Neuroscience - the New Philosophy

This year's Reith Lecturer is Vilayanur S Ramachandran, Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition. He has lectured widely on art and visual perception of the brain and is Editor-in-chief of the Encyclopaedia of Human Behaviour. Professor Ramachandran's work has concentrated on investigating phenomena such as phantom limbs, anosognosia and anorexia nervosa. In his final Reith Lecture, Professor Ramachandran argues that neuroscience, perhaps more than any other discipline, is capable of transforming man's understanding of himself and his place in the cosmos.

42mins

30 Apr 2003

Rank #6

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The Magic of Music

This year's lecturer is Daniel Barenboim, who has become known as one of the most versatile pianists of his generation. His skill has led him to world recognition and the appointment as Chief Conductor for Life by the Staatskapelle Berlin. He has also won a Grammy for his recording of Wagner's Tannhäuser and received the Wilhelm Furtwängler Prize for his work with the Staatskapelle Berlin.Speaking from Berlin, Daniel Barenboim argues in his third Reith Lecture that classical music is not an exclusive language. He explains that given the right attitude it can be understood by everyone and not just the musical elite. He also examines how political correctness and bad education have caused the inability to make value judgements about public standards in music appreciation.

41mins

21 Apr 2006

Rank #7

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The Time Traveller

French poet Jacques Darras delivers the first of his Reith Lectures entitled 'Beyond the Tunnel of History'. Taking inspiration from the formation of the Channel Tunnel, Durras looks back through the shared history of France and Britain and suggests that their respective national pasts will need to be reinterpreted in the light of a shared future.In his first lecture entitled 'The Time Traveller', Jacque Darras asks the question, now that their destinies are increasingly converging within a wider Europe, how will the two cultures reconcile with each other? To answer this question he explores the embodiment of democracy within the civic squares of Europe. He uses the historic architectural landmarks to evaluate how France and Britain might still form a multicultural Europe.

29mins

22 Nov 1989

Rank #8

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The Origin of the Universe 1

This year's Reith Lecturer is Professor Bernard Lovell, the first Director of the Jodrell Bank Experimental Observatory, and Professor of Radio Astronomy at Manchester University. During the Second World War, he helped to develop radar systems for aircrafts, for which he received an OBE in 1946. He delivers six lectures on the wonders of the solar system in his series entitled 'The Individual and the Universe'.In his fifth lecture entitled 'The Origin of the Universe 1', Professor Bernard Lovell explores how we observe the horizon of the universe, and contemplates how we formulate theories in terms of known physical laws. He gives examples of evolutionary models and explains the implications of this evolutionary theory.

29mins

7 Nov 1958

Rank #9

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In the Beginning was Sound

This year's lecturer is Daniel Barenboim, who has become known as one of the most versatile pianists of his generation. His skill as a musician and a conductor has led him to world recognition and the appointment as Chief Conductor for Life by the Staatskapelle Berlin. He has also won a Grammy for his recording of Wagner's Tannhäuser and received the Wilhelm Furtwängler Prize for his work with the Staatskapelle Berlin.In the first of his five Reith Lectures, Daniel Barenboim explores the physical phenomenon of sound. He contends that: In the beginning was sound.

42mins

7 Apr 2006

Rank #10

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The Day Is for the Living

Art can bring the dead back to life, argues the best-selling novelist Hilary Mantel, starting with the story of her own great-grandmother. "We sense the dead have a vital force still," she says. "They have something to tell us, something we need to understand. Using fiction and drama, we try to gain that understanding." She describes how and why she began to write fiction about the past, and how her view of her trade has evolved. We cannot hear or see the past, she says, but "we can listen and look". Over this series of five lectures, Dame Hilary discusses the role that history plays in our culture. How can we understand the past, she asks, and how can we convey its nature today? Above all, she believes, we must all try to respect the past amid all its strangeness and complexity. The lecture is recorded in front of an audience at Halle St Peter's in Manchester, and is followed by a question and answer session chaired by Sue Lawley. The producer is Jim Frank.

50mins

13 Jun 2017

Rank #11

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Morality in Politics

Professor Michael Sandel delivers four lectures about the prospects of a new politics of the common good. The series is presented and chaired by Sue Lawley. Sandel considers the role of moral argument in politics. He believes that it is often not possible for government to be neutral on moral questions and calls for a more engaged civic debate about issues such as commercial surrogacy and same-sex marriage.

42mins

16 Jun 2009

Rank #12

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The Darwinian Economy

The eminent economic historian Niall Ferguson travels to the world's financial centre to deliver a lecture at the New-York Historical Society. He reflects on the causes of the global financial crisis, and argues that many people have drawn erroneous conclusions from it about the role of regulation. Is regulation, he asks, in fact "the disease of which it purports to be the cure"?Producer: Jane Beresford.

52mins

26 Jun 2012

Rank #13

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The Role of Individuality

The inaugural Reith Lecturer is the philosopher, mathematician, and social reformer Bertrand Russell. One of the founders of analytic philosophy and a Nobel Laureate, he is the author of Principia Mathematica, and the bestselling History of Western Philosophy, written in 1946. His Reith lecture series is entitled 'Authority and the Individual'. In his third lecture, entitled 'The Role of Individuality', he considers the importance of individual initiative to a community, and argues for flexibility, local autonomy, and less centralisation in society. Modern organisations, he says, must be more flexible and less oppressive to the human spirit if life is to be saved from boredom.

29mins

9 Jan 1949

Rank #14

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Synapses and the Self

This year's Reith Lecturer is Vilayanur S Ramachandran, Director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition. He has lectured widely on art and visual perception of the brain and is Editor-in-chief of the Encyclopaedia of Human Behaviour. Professor Ramachandran's work has concentrated on investigating phenomena such as phantom limbs, anosognosia and anorexia nervosa. In his second Reith Lecture Professor Ramachandran examines the process we call 'seeing'; how we become consciously aware of things around us. How does the activity of the 100 billion little wisps of protoplasm - the neurons in the brain - give rise to all the richness of our conscious experience, including the 'redness' of red, the painfulness of pain or the exquisite flavour of Marmite or Vindaloo?

42mins

9 Apr 2003

Rank #15

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A New Politics of the Common Good

Professor Michael Sandel delivers four lectures about the prospects of a new politics of the common good. The series is presented and chaired by Sue Lawley. Sandel makes the case for a moral and civic renewal in democratic politics. Recorded at George Washington University in Washington DC, he calls for a new politics of the common good and says that we need to think of ourselves as citizens, not just consumers.

42mins

30 Jun 2009

Rank #16

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War And Our World

The Reith lecturer for the 50th anniversary series, is British military historian and journalist John Keegan. He has been a senior lecturer in Military History at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and also held a visiting professorship at Princeton University. Leaving the academy in 1986 John Keegan joined the Daily Telegraph as a Defence Correspondent and remains with the publication as Defence Editor, also writing for the American conservative website, National Review Online. His published work examines warfare throughout history, including human prehistory and the classical era; with the majority of his writing focussing on the 14th century onwards to modern conflict.In his first Reith Lecture, recorded at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London, John Keegan explores the great impact warfare has had on modern times. War has been the scourge of this century, but John Keegan argues that until very recently war was not among life's great enemies. War previously had occasionally had epidemic effects, but it always stood lower in peoples' fears than the arrival of famine and disease. The fear of war as a widespread killer, he says, only began in the 19th century, and only in the 20th century did the fear of war overtake the more primordial anxieties associated with sickness and deprivation.

43mins

8 Apr 1998

Rank #17

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Control and Initiative: Their Respective Spheres

The inaugural Reith Lecturer is the philosopher, mathematician, and social reformer Bertrand Russell. One of the founders of analytic philosophy and a Nobel Laureate, he is the author of Principia Mathematica, and the bestselling History of Western Philosophy, written in 1946. His Reith lecture series is entitled 'Authority and the Individual'. In his penultimate Reith lecture, entitled 'Control and Initiative: Their Respective Spheres', Bertrand Russell considers which matters should be controlled by the state in a healthy and progressive society, and what should be left to private initiative. He argues that in our complex world, there cannot be fruitful initiative without government, but nor can there be government without initiative.

29mins

23 Jan 1949

Rank #18

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The Origins Of War

This year's Reith lecturer is British military historian and journalist John KeeganIn his second lecture, recorded at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, John Keegan looks at the origins of warfare, when combat first became purposeful, and examines whether evidence of violence and the need for war is embedded in human nature, or if it is only present in the external factors which act upon human nature. He argues that the evolution of conflict is inextricably linked to the evolution of social groupings.

43mins

15 Apr 1998

Rank #19

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To Know Ourselves

Sociologist A H Halsey, Professor of Social and Administrative studies at the University of Oxford, explores the characteristics of the British culture in his first Reith lecture from the series entitled 'Change in British Society'. In this lecture entitled 'To Know Ourselves' Professor Halsey explains that to know ourselves we must explore the sources of consensus and conflict. How are differences between classes, sexes, generations and ethnic groups to be depicted? How have they been changing? Considering different division of sociological thought, Professor Halsey evaluates how society tries to bond under the classifications of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

29mins

11 Jan 1978

Rank #20