“To God there is no zero. I still exist.” – Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man screenplay (1957)
The summer solstice has just passed — marking the extreme tipping point of the earth’s axis and the longest day. It was the inspiration for this week’s Something Understood programme for BBC Radio 4. I wanted to explore the human urge to push at the limits of what is physically possible: In space, deep in the oceans and within the submicroscopic world, It was in the 50s and 60s that films and books seemed to revel in fantasies of inner space, in such films as The Fantastic Voyage and Richard Matheson’s book and film of The Shrinking Man. (Spoiler alert: The programme features a reading from the very end of the book.) You can listen to the music on this Spotify list.
There was even a theme park ride — Disneyland’s Journey into Inner Space — that claimed to shrink you inside a water molecule. Aged just 8 when I rode it, I remember holding my hand up in the darkness and wondering if it might really be true. It was the last time I was ever fooled by such a stunt.
The Shard in London proves a useful starting point to contemplate human arrogance. But The Tower of Babel from Genesis seems a more ambivalent story, about trying to block the instinctive human pursuit of knowledge, too. And pushing at the limits of human knowledge and experience is what the programme celebrates.
Dr Kevin Fong from University College London offers insights from his work on medical extremes with astronauts at NASA and with free divers — who have continued to break each set of new defined parameters of medical safety to plunge without breathing apparatus. There’s a reading from the biologist William Beebe who was the first to plunge to new depths in a bathysphere
And the programme features music pushing at the limits of sound; played on instruments made of ice, and the vocal chords pushed to the outer limits: notably Mozart’s Queen of the Night Aria from the The Magic Flute.
Hinduism’s use of stories to impart cosmic ideas about time and cycles of creation and destruction has an especial affinity with concepts of modern cosmology and particle physics. There’s even a statue of Lord Shiva at the Large Hadron collider in Cern. In the programme I explore the story of the 3 main gods of Hinduism – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva — searching for the source of a Pillar of Light that stretches vertically up into infinite space and down deep into the infinite ocean. Superficially it’s a simple tale of rivalry as Vishnu and Brahma race in opposite directions to be the first to find the starting point. But it’s clearly a cosmic lesson on the scale of the universe and man’s place in it.
Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Demeter brings us full circle to the promise and loss of the limits of the seasons as the earth tilts each way on its axis and her daughter, Persephone, emerges with the Equinox from the winter of the Underworld in the spring.
Something Understood: The Outer Limits is on Radio BBC 4 on Sunday June 29th at 6am and 1130pm and on this link and iplay for 7 days after. The programme page has a playlist of all readings and music. It’s produced by Natalie Steed and is a Whistledown Production.