Alistair Cooke’s death left a little crater in my life. Sunday mornings were a sacred time, when a hush would fall over the kitchen while I meandered with Mr Cooke through a tapestry of topics that hung against the backdrop of an American century.
So great was my loyalty that, when Radio 4 came up with revolving commentators to replace Letter From America, I was fairly indifferent. Eventually, a few?Harry Evans, Brian Walden, Clive James ?snuck into my affections. But my favourite, in the A Point of View slot, is Lisa Jardine.
For one thing, I love her voice: musical, donnish, clear as a bell. She’s the daughter of Jacob Bronowski, the mathematician and scientist who wrote and presented the monumental television series The Ascent of Man. A polymath who embraced the arts and the sciences, Bronowski’s formidable legacy to his daughter was his intellectual eclecticism. Lisa Jardine, professor, writer and scholar, speaks French, Italian, Dutch, Greek and Latin, but she speaks English in the lucid, distilled voice of a scientist in love with language.
Last Sunday morning, her A Point of View was quite literally a letter from America. She had just spent a week at the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, in Pasadena, a small but first-rate university dedicated to teaching and research in fundamental science. It has embarked on the Herculean project of transcribing and publishing the entire archive of Albert Einstein, who proved to the world that simplicity is beauty and beauty is truth with his formula E=mc2.
While she was at Caltech, Lisa Jardine was shown some of the treasures from the collection. Gazing at the papers, she saw Einstein as a symbol for the way in which the US not only gave a home to a generation of scientists fleeing Nazi Germany, but took up the torch of scientific research. She told listeners that Caltech was also ‘a reminder that the ties that bind European intellectuals to our fellow human beings in the US are far stronger than the agendas of particular administrations on either side of the Atlantic’. Hers was a plea for the long view, back to the early years of Cal-tech, and forward, ‘beyond the disaster of the Iraq war’?and the ‘damagingly anti-science ethos of the Bush administration’?so that we might nurture and cherish the common intellectual understanding between our two countries.
It stopped me in my tracks. These days, I find it easy to forget those ties, to sink into the anti-American/anti-Blair despair that Jardine believes runs entirely counter to Einstein’s hopes for the future, as spelled out in the statement he wrote with Ber-trand Russell just before his death. That manifesto was a call to think in a new way, to ask ourselves not only what steps can be taken to prevent military contests that will be ‘disastrous to all parties’, but how we can build on our remarkable shared history: of shared science, of shared moral belief.
I needed to be reminded of those ties. Meanwhile, I hope that Lisa Jardine’s provocative A Point of View continues. Like Cooke, she creates a rich tapestry, weaving art and science, past and present. And she always seems to connect to something close to home. Over my desk is a quote from her father that I’ve stared at for nearly 20 years: ‘Einstein was a man who could ask immensely simple questions. And what his work showed is that when the answers are simple too, then you can hear God thinking.’ Long live the tapestry makers.