James Baldwin debates William F Buckley

59 minutes

Building beauty with biology

5 minutes

A brief history of melancholy

5 minutes

The Sutton Hoo helmet

19 minutes

Gut hack

12 minutes

The legendary debate that laid down US political lines on race, justice and history

In 1965 at the University of Cambridge, two of the foremost American intellectuals were challenged with the question: ‘Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?’ From William F Buckley’s highly stylised posturing and pointing, to James Baldwin’s melodious rhetorical flourishes and memorable scowls, what’s become known as the ‘Baldwin-Buckley Debate’ now stands as one of the archetypal articulations of the dividing line between US progressives and conservatives on questions of race, justice and history. Baldwin, the famed African-American writer, whose reputation as a progressive social critic and visionary Civil Rights activist has only risen in the intervening decades, argues that the very foundation of US society is built on the dehumanisation of its African-American population. Meanwhile, Buckley, the leading US conservative intellectual of the period, argues that African Americans would be best served by exploiting their country’s many freedoms and opportunities, rather than pointing a collective finger at discriminatory structures and institutions. In both cases, their positions presage contemporary divisive debates in the US, though one wonders whether such an event could happen in today’s political environment.

While usually reduced to short clips, the full hour-long debate – presented here in its entirety – is a remarkable historical document in its own right. Conducted in front of a large, almost entirely white and predominantly male audience at the Cambridge Union, the encounter offers a sense of campus intellectual life in the mid-1960s through the atmosphere in the room, the things that made people laugh, and the particular references made by the debaters. After the always eloquent Baldwin evokes his personal experience to describe a perpetually disorienting and demeaning existence for African Americans, Buckley responds with facts and figures – as well as an ad hominem shot at Baldwin’s speaking voice – to argue that there’s an American Dream available to all those who would pursue it. In the end, Baldwin prevailed, earning an ardent standing ovation and a landslide victory in the Union’s vote on the motion raised.

Website: The Cambridge Union

Audio restoration: Adam D’Arpino

The uncanny art inspired by evolution and generated by ‘crossbreeding’ images

When viewing the work of the US artist and tool developer Joel Simon, you might find that his images are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before – which makes sense, as they weren’t quite born of nature or a human mind. Inspired by the biological properties of evolution and emergence, Simon uses simple programming rules, which, when applied over and over, give rise to uncanny images that augment the human imagination. His most recent work, explored in this video from Science Friday, applies a machine-learning framework known as a generative adversarial network (GAN) to two images. Guided by human users via Simon’s website Artbreeder, his programs ‘crossbreed’ pictures of everything from animals to artworks. Fascinating digital artefacts in their own right, the resulting, author-less images raise complex questions at the nexus of art, programming and design.

Video by Science Friday

Producer: Luke Groskin

From imbalanced humours to brain chemistry – on the evolution of melancholy

The Ancient Greeks blamed sadness on bodily humours called ‘melaina kole’ (black bile). Today, clinical depression is often understood as an imbalance of brain chemicals – although this is a paradigm that many experts believe is overdue for an update. This animation from TED-Ed offers a brief examination of the history of melancholy, scoping how philosophers, poets, writers and scientists have envisioned and altered our understanding of the experience across the ages.

Video by TED-Ed

Director: Sharon Colman

Writer: Courtney Stephens

The meanings and mysteries of the iconic Sutton Hoo helmet brought vividly to life

The early Anglo-Saxon artefact known as the Sutton Hoo helmet has, since its origins in the 7th century, passed through many incarnations, including: exquisite armour, long-dormant burial object, astounding archeological discovery and high-stakes puzzle. Today, the Sutton Hoo helmet – so named for the site in the English county of Suffolk at which it was discovered in 1939 – lives on as one of the British Museum’s most famous pieces. In this video, Sue Brunning, curator of the museum’s European Early Medieval Insular Collection, examines the iconic object, revealing the multitude of meanings and mysteries it holds. Through her investigation, Brunning brilliantly captures how history is an ever-fluid work in progress, being made and remade as new discoveries are brought – often quite literally – to light.

Video by the British Museum

When medicine offers no relief, a biohacker begins a radical self-experiment

In 2015, the US scientist, artist and self-described ‘biohacker’ Josiah Zayner undertook a controversial project to help resolve his lifelong gastrointestinal issues. The plan was to replace the vast colonies of microbiota on and inside his body via transplants from a healthy donor – and then document the proceedings. Although an accomplished biologist with a PhD in biophysics and two years as a NASA researcher under his belt, Zayner’s endeavour was frowned upon by much of the scientific community, with critics condemning the project for operating outside the normal boundaries of bioethics. Especially controversial was Zayner’s plan to self-administer a faecal transplant – a risky procedure usually reserved for potentially fatal conditions. In their documentary Gut Hack, the filmmakers Mario Furloni and Kate McLean follow Zayner’s fascinating, radical and not-for-the-squeamish quest for relief. In so doing, they also confront deeper issues of ethics and autonomy at the core of contemporary science.

Directors: Mario Furloni, Kate McLean

Producer: Laura Heberton

The legendary debate that laid down US political lines on race, justice and history

In 1965 at the University of Cambridge, two of the foremost American intellectuals were challenged with the question: ‘Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?’ From William F Buckley’s highly stylised posturing and pointing, to James Baldwin’s melodious rhetorical flourishes and memorable scowls, what’s become known as the ‘Baldwin-Buckley Debate’ now stands as one of the archetypal articulations of the dividing line between US progressives and conservatives on questions of race, justice and history. Baldwin, the famed African-American writer, whose reputation as a progressive social critic and visionary Civil Rights activist has only risen in the intervening decades, argues that the very foundation of US society is built on the dehumanisation of its African-American population. Meanwhile, Buckley, the leading US conservative intellectual of the period, argues that African Americans would be best served by exploiting their country’s many freedoms and opportunities, rather than pointing a collective finger at discriminatory structures and institutions. In both cases, their positions presage contemporary divisive debates in the US, though one wonders whether such an event could happen in today’s political environment.

While usually reduced to short clips, the full hour-long debate – presented here in its entirety – is a remarkable historical document in its own right. Conducted in front of a large, almost entirely white and predominantly male audience at the Cambridge Union, the encounter offers a sense of campus intellectual life in the mid-1960s through the atmosphere in the room, the things that made people laugh, and the particular references made by the debaters. After the always eloquent Baldwin evokes his personal experience to describe a perpetually disorienting and demeaning existence for African Americans, Buckley responds with facts and figures – as well as an ad hominem shot at Baldwin’s speaking voice – to argue that there’s an American Dream available to all those who would pursue it. In the end, Baldwin prevailed, earning an ardent standing ovation and a landslide victory in the Union’s vote on the motion raised.

Website: The Cambridge Union

Audio restoration: Adam D’Arpino

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