Behind the Scenes: The Seven Ages of Science an Interview with Lisa Jardine.

I was pleasantly surprised when Adam Rutherford turned up in the comments on my post on history of science broadcasting last week, however his comments on and criticism of what I had written raised some questions in my mind concerning the production of The Seven Ages of Science, questions that could only really be answered by Lisa Jardine. Being a fearless history of science blogger I thought why not just ask the lady if she would be prepared to answer those questions, so I did and she said yes. What follows is the verbatim email interview that we conducted on Saturday evening, in my case between walking the dog and cooking my evening meal. I think many of my readers will find this brief look behind the scenes as fascinating as I did, as the answers to my questions beamed in over the course of the evening.


Renaissance Mathematicus: Who first had the basic idea for the Seven Ages of Science and assuming the initial idea was little more than a simple thought who then developed the concept?

Lisa Jardine: Producer Anna Buckley had the original idea. When she sent me her sketch breakdown of each of her 7 ages, I was captivated, because it was an idea I immediately connected with intellectually. Of course the title, with its accompanying 7 half hour episodes, was clever. But it was Anna’s fantastically well-informed and thoughtful choice for the 7 Ages (originally Age of Experiment, Exploration, Opportunity, Inspiration, Laboratory, War and Now — I proposed Age of Ingenuity later) that I really warmed to. We developed the concept episode by episode together, but in the end the voice and narrative are mine. One of my conditions for agreeing to present the series was that the series had to be ‘mine’, in the sense that I had intellectual ownership of the argument from beginning to end. I have a recognised radio presence and persona, and listeners would immediately spot if the script wasn’t mine. As the blurb says, it is ‘a personal view’. Having said that, I consider Anna and I have an absolutely equal share in the final programmes. Anna is a brilliant programme-maker, and is herself a scientist by training. I, of course, am an academic historian, and an intellectual story-teller. So we have had some stupendous fights in the course of brainstorming each programme (to my shame, I once shouted at her in Albermarle Street), and also some absolutely thrilling moments of agreement and breakthrough accompanied by hurrahs of delight (usually over lattes in a cafe to the amusement of other patrons), when a story has come together. So these programmes are — as I believe all the best intellectual products are — the outcome of really strenuous thinking, researching and debating between two of us. Finally — but absolutely as importantly — my contributors all brought something really original and insightful to my understanding of the Age we were discussing. I have joked with Anna that each draft programme’s direction has been dramatically altered by something one of my expert contributors has explained to me. That has turned out to be true. We chose the best, and they all, without exception, delivered! The Seven Ages of Science is a team effort.

RM: You say that the Seven Ages is a team effort and having listened to the three episodes up to now it is obvious that the experts involved have made a significant contribution. My knowledge of the subjects discussed tells me that those experts are really ‘the’ experts on the topics that they contribute to. How did the two of you go about selecting those experts?

LJ: Once again there were hours of discussion, and sometimes quite a lot of arguing. I wanted the very best expert, regardless of whether they were tried and tested interviewees. Sometimes Anna might have preferred old hands. Several of our experienced contributors (Patricia Fara in particular) gave us a lot of their time to talk through ideas and structure too. On several occasions Anna or I would have encountered a fabulous article or a terrific book, while researching, and we did seek out those people, and ask them for interviews (as far as I am aware, everyone who could said yes). Then curators at locations we visited were endlessly helpful, and made their own expert contributions.

And as you may have noticed, we had it in our heads that women and men should feature as far as possible equally as voices, and — as the ages went on — as figures in the narrative. I should stress that that proved extraordinarily straightforward. I don’t know where the idea comes from that there are either a) no women experts out there or b) they tend to decline invitation for interview. Neither turned out to be true.

RM: Your answers are great but you keep answering my next question before I can put it. Did you and Anna develop the actually episodes just with the guest experts or were any professional BBC scriptwriters involved?

LJ: Absolutely no ‘professional BBC scriptwriters involved’! Perish the thought!

RM: Who exercises editorial control on the content and to what extent do they exercise it?

LJ: There is inevitably editorial control over content, but that mostly came at the beginning. We were told the programmes were only to be about British science. We were asked not to include medicine. Each programme is vetted by a senior editor who may make suggestions about content or structure. Usually Anna doesn’t tell me about these (present tense because we’re still working on programmes 6 and 7), because it makes me cross! We have always found a way of accommodating the ‘suggestions’ without compromising our ideas (Anna tells me about them after we’ve recorded, usually, though there may well have been some adjustments she’s persuaded me to make because she was instructed/persuaded to do so).

RM: Thank you for your very full and informative answers. Last question, the critical reaction to Seven Ages has been very positive following the first three episodes can we hope for some more excellent history of science broadcasting from you and Anna in the future?

LJ: I’d absolutely love to do more. It’s so challenging! And so rewarding too. But it does take an enormous amount of time and effort, not to mention blood, sweat and occasional tears. Anna Buckley and I are completely exhausted by it right now, so ask me again in a month or so when we’ve recovered.

Don’t forget to listen to the next episode on BBC Radio 4 Tueday 9:00 pm or Wednesday 3:30 pm!








Filed under History of science

10 responses to “Behind the Scenes: The Seven Ages of Science an Interview with Lisa Jardine.

  1. Nice scoop, Thony. Like you, I’m really enjoying this excellent series. My only (minor) misgiving is the title… Once all seven ‘ages’ of science have been covered in seven half-hour episodes, aren’t the people who commission radio series going to think the history of science has been ‘done’?

    • Thony C

      “…aren’t the people who commission radio series going to think the history of science has been ‘done’?”

      That’s OK Richard I’ll just write one of my vitriolic blog posts pointing out that the title Seven Ages Of Science is a misnomer because they only covered the last three hundred years of British science.

      What about continental science? What we call Newtonian physics is really a product of the Bernoullis and Euler! No Darwin without Buffon, Cuvier and Lamarck etc., etc… Then what about all the science in the Early Modern Period, Renaissance and Middle Ages before Newton? We then follow up with a demand for Islamic, Indian and Chinese science followed by a request for the origins of science in antiquity in Egypt, Babylon, Greece…

      I think with a concerted campaign we can convince the Beeb that they haven’t really started yet on the history of science 😉

  2. Lisa Jardine

    I sincerely hope not!

  3. Lisa Jardine

    This feels to me the best place for me to respond to the tweets asking what my producer and my fights were about. First of all that slightly misses the point. Ongoing intellectual struggle is part of any shared creative project and that was what happened in our case. Secondly, whether about content or treatment, the project we were engaged in was the shaping of a true, coherent, convincing, careful narrative. In the end the scariest bit of formulating these stories is deciding what to leave out. You can only tell a convincing etc story if you concentrate on case studies to capture the larger whole. So our most fraught moments — but also our most hallelujah triumphant ones — were about which cases to include and which not. Inevitably some of each of our favourites went to the wall, for reasons of time as well as storytelling.

  4. Jeb

    “equally as voices” That cuts to the heart of the matter for me and it is a storytelling issue

    We all know the dangers of presenting one voice and one story; a stereotypical narrative and yet we see them playing out everyday on television and printed media in regard to gender, poverty, ethnicity, (the list is endless).

    This argument is one small part of a much wider dysfunction which points to a record of significant failure within the B.B.C to manage this issue effectively.

    It is such an important issue you just cannot afford to fail here anywhere.

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  8. Any reason why Dr. Jardine chose the number “7” – seven ages of science? … Having read some medieval philosophy, I was reminded of passages of Bonaventura’s “Breviloquium.” An online summary with original text notes “Scripture describes all times and periods from the beginning of the world until the day of judgment… within these phases, distinguishes seven specific periods: the first from Adam to Noe, the second from Noe to Abraham, [etc.]… The full span of time, proceeding under its three laws- the innate (of nature), the imposed (written), and the infused (of grace) – rightly passes through seven ages and comes to a close at the end of the sixth; for thus the course of the world reflects the sequence of its creation, the course of the large world corresponding to that of the small- to the life of man, for whose sake the world was made… These seven ages are thus distinguished on the basis of the signal events that ushered them in, whereby they correspond to the days of the world’s creation.”
    … Have we reached a empirical/research apocalypse at the end of the seventh age of science?

    Click to access WSB-9-Breviloquium.pdf

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