Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Monkman and Seagull's Polymathic Adventures/ Cassini's Last Adventure/ Stargazing

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Monkman and Seagull's Polymathic Adventures/ Cassini's Last Adventure/ Stargazing

Article excerpt

Yet another sign that we are living in very strange times: a pair of celebrities, their names made by TV, have switched over to radio for their next project. Not starring in their own series on BBC2 or Channel 4, but on a medium that could have become redundant yet is refusing to give way (the latest Rajar figures indicated that listening is on the up across all networks). Plenty of stars made by radio have gone on to household-name status on TV (Steve Coogan, David Mitchell, Chris Morris). But Eric Monkman and Bobby Seagull, who began trending on Twitter because of their appearances on BBC2's University Challenge -- Monkman, the geek with his razor-sharp eagerness to get on the button; Seagull, the cool, smiley guy -- are now starring on Radio 4 in their own show.

Monkman and Seagull'sPolymathic Adventures is not quite Little and Large but an astute commissioner recognised their double-act potential and that it depended not on their differing appearances and manner but their verbal dexterity and complementary voices. In this one-off (a series beckons) they set out to find out why it's so unfashionable to know a lot about very different areas of knowledge, often obscure (like stained glass) and usually very precise (Davis Cup tennis). Why is there now such a gulf of incomprehension between literature and science? Why are we so suspicious of 'experts' when the most significant discoveries are only made when people do spend years and years of their lives focused on just one thing? What happened to the Renaissance man, or woman, as knowledgeable about what heaven means as about what you might find in the heavens?

Monkman and Seagull were in opposing teams on University Challenge but on air they worked together, both equally at ease meeting scientists, historians, Stephen Fry, each quite different in style of approach and tone yet on the same mission: to work out how know-alls can contribute to society, concerned that their obsession with finding out stuff might inhibit their usefulness. They reckoned that 'the last man who knew everything' was Thomas Young, who died in 1829. He taught himself 400 languages, began to crack the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone, trained in medicine but also understood physics. Even then he was criticised for 'dabbling' in too many discrete areas of knowledge.

This week, as if in response to their concern that we're not curious enough, the World Service has given us three programmes about space, with a new series on Stargazing led by Dava Sobel (author of Longitude) and a couple about the Voyager missions and the Cassini-Huygens mission. …

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