Aired: 8 October 2012, BBC Radio 4
Curator: Jimmy Carr
Steering Committee: Jo Brand, Stuart Clark and Tom Hart Dyke
Jo’s donation to the museum is an old pullover knitted by a close relative, that represents childhood.
‘Childhood seems to be disappearing,’ she explains. ‘There’s so much pressure on children to grow up early. Parents are terrified of letting their children out of their sight, so they have to find ways to entertain them at home. Children don’t get the chance to run and play, to do stupid things.'
By the time they are 17, British children will have been driven 80,000 miles by their parents. Six out of ten parents in the UK admit that they put their children in front of the TV or use game consoles on rainy days to make life easier. 30 per cent say they are forced to put their children in front of the TV because there is ‘nothing else for them to do’. The average American child watches 1,197 minutes of television every week and will have witnessed 16,000 murders on television by age 18.
Prior to the nineteenth century, children were seen as little adults and expected to have the same interests. The idea of ‘childhood’ is very much a recent invention. ‘Sentimental relations between parents and children were weakened by by the frequency of child death,’ wrote historian Philippe Ariès. ‘The important boundary was not between child and elder but dependent and master.’ In the early nineteenth century, crimes punishable by death included ‘strong evidence of malice’ in children aged between 7 and 14. And, until 1913, children in America could legally be sent by parcel post.
Jo Brand is a national treasure, although she says she would ‘rather maintain a taint of national disgrace’. She is a BAFTA-winning comedian, writer and actress and something of a trailblazer for female stand-up comedy.
Jo spent ten years working as a psychiatric nurse in London and Wales before being persuaded by agent Malcolm Hardee to try a career in stand-up comedy. She began under the stage name of ‘The Sea Monster’ – a comedy club owner suggested it – and it suited her purposes. ‘I was still working as a nurse,’ she explains. ‘And I didn’t want colleagues seeing my name in Time Out and coming along to heckle.’
She then moved into television, appearing initially on the Saturday Live television show. Soon she was appearing more regularly on shows like QI, Have I Got News for You, Jo Brand’s Big Splash and many more. Later she had a cameo appearance in an episode of Absolutely Fabulous and has been a regular visitor to ‘Dictionary Corner’ on Countdown. She has taken part in several celebrity Comic Relief events and in 2009 she reached the final of Let’s Dance for Comic Relief, putting in a memorable performance as Britney Spears singing Hit Me Baby One More Time, while dressed as a schoolgirl.
Jo also co-wrote and starred in the BBC Four sitcom Getting On, for which she won the 2011 Best TV Comedy Actress BAFTA.
My daughter Maisie came home from school when she was five and asked, ‘Mum, are you Jo Brand?’ I replied, ‘Yes, sorry.’
Stuart Clark is a widely read astronomy journalist who has devoted his career to presenting the complex world of astronomy to the general public. He is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.
In 2001 Stuart became a full-time writer. He has since written a series of successful non-fiction books and is cosmology consultant for New Scientist. He also writes for the European Space Agency and has written for, among others, BBC’s Sky at Night and Focus, Astronomy Now and Sky and Telescope and many national newspapers.
Stu's latest books, a trilogy of novels, are set around the times of greatest change in mankind’s understanding of the universe: The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth tells the stories of the lives and work of Galileo and Kepler against the backdrop of the times in which they lived; The Sensorium of God relates the life, times and work of Isaac Newton and his contemporaries in the Royal Society; and The Day without Yesterday leaps forward into the twentieth century to set the scene for the achievements of Albert Einstein and Georges Lemaître.
His other passions are cooking and playing rock guitar. He has a band called Doctor Stu and the Neutron Stars ‘because neutron stars are heavier than metal’ and, a few years ago, played guitar at a live version of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds.
For his donation Stu gave the museum Johannes Kepler’s Planetary Drinks Dispenser.
Before discovering the laws of planetary motion, in particular, their elliptical orbits, Kepler had a theory that the orbits of the six known planets were like six hollow spheres nestled like Russian dolls, separated by hollow versions of each of the five Platonic solids. The system didn’t really work but he liked it so much that he ascribed any discrepancies to errors of his own observation (he was not great observer, having weak eyes as a result of childhood smallpox).
The traditional way to get such an idea across would be through a book, but Kepler had a more ingenious solution: alcohol. He designed a silver model in which each planet’s Platonic solid would dispense a different booze through little taps: brandy from Mercury, mead from Venus, strong vermouth from Mars and a delicious new wine from Jupiter. Saturn was to be filled with a bad red wine, so that people could ‘ridicule those ignorant of the planet’s bitter qualities’. The model simply wouldn’t fit together but thankfully drawings still exist to show us what it could have looked like.
When I was getting towards the end of my degree, I was writing more and more articles and reviews. I actually funded my PhD by writing the sleeve notes for Star Trek videos.
Tom’s donation to the Museum was a plant - Puya raimondii – also known as the 'Queen of the Andes'. It is a gigantic plant (up to 10m in height) that has the world's largest inflorescence (cluster of flowers). It was unknown to Europeans until it was discovered by contemporary of Darwin, French scientist Alcide d'Orbigny in 1830. It is found mostly in Bolivia, but also in Peru.
Puya raimondii is a member of the pineapple family and doesn't grow a flower until it is 70-150 years old, after which it dies. The flower-spike contains up to 8000 whitish-green blooms, each resembling a lily, that turn purple with age. They attract hummingbirds and can stand changes in weather (other plants in the area grow close to the ground due to the cold mountain air) due to an anti-freeze-like sap that it produces. A single plant can have six million seeds. Some birds that come to visit the flowering plants actually stab themselves to death on the plant's spiky leaves. The spikes are also a danger to livestock.
Thomas Hart Dyke is an English horticulturist and plant hunter. He is the son of Guy and Sarah Hart Dyke whose family have owned Lullingstone Castle, Eynsford, Kent for more than 500 years. Tom is the designer and builder of The World Garden of Plants, which stands in the grounds of the castle and contains approximately 8,000 species of plants, many of which he collected from their native environments.
Tom follows a tradition of Victorian and Edwardian British plant hunters who risked life and limb to acquire rare species of plants and, in 2000, he was kidnapped by guerillas in the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia. He and his travel companion, Paul Winder, were held captive for nine months and were often threatened with death. On one occasion, they were told that they would be executed that day.”They got out their guns and said, ‘You've got five hours, mate.’ That was at 12 o'clock”, says Tom. “At five o'clock on the dot they came back. I closed my eyes. I opened one eye. I opened the other eye. No guns, just the evening meal: squashed armadillo.” Tom kept himself going by creating a design for a garden containing plants collected on his trips, laid out in the shape of a world map.
On his return home, Tom put his design into practice within the walls of the family's Victorian herb garden. The story of the creation of The World Garden of Plants was the subject of two BBC series, Save Lullingstone Castle and Return To Lullingstone Castle. In May 2006, he managed to get an Australian Eucalyptus caesia plant (common name Silver Princess) to flower for the first time in the UK. In a fairy tale ending, the World Garden may save his family’s ancestral home which had been losing visitors for the past 30 years.
I was hopeless at the Common Entrance exams. I didn't even come close to passing. I wasn't even in one of the exams: the orchids were flowering.I never went to university. My university was going away. I won't recommend some of the parts of the world I went to, though; you might not come back.