Jul 042011

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The BBC just released 60 years worth of the Reith Lectures. Since 1948, each year (except ’77 and ’92) a prominent speaker is invited to deliver a series of lectures on a relevant and debated topic of the time. The first year’s lecturer was no other than Bertrand Russel who gave 6 lectures on Authority and the Individual.

The series isn’t unlike the Messenger Lectures of Cornell University. Albeit, the latter apparently doesn’t make the lectures publicly available. That is, save of the great lectures delivered by Richard Feynman in 1964 which Microsoft restored to showcase their Silverlight technology and its video features. Project Tuva, as Microsoft calls it, refers to Feynman’s and, his longtime friend, Ralph Leighton‘s attempt to travel to Tuva. The project which the two friends dubbed Tuva or Bust is documented in Ralph’s book by the same name.

There is a wealth of historic and once-in-a-lifetime lectures and public appearances by eminent figures archived away collecting dust. BBC isn’t the first to make freely available what could only be useful and of value the more it proliferates. The topics of the 20th century are by and large the topics of the 21st. This isn’t simply because our most pressing issues have backdrops in the previous century, not just, but also because most issues are fundamentally the same.

Even in the case of Project Tuva, where a commercial institution chose to promote and advertise its product by restoring and releasing to public what could otherwise be buried by time and misc discarded tapes and equipment. For it isn’t at all important how the message is conveyed, so long that it reaches our ears and minds. More and more institutions, organizations and governments should sponsor similar efforts. In fact, donations to start a new web-based series should be well worth the effort. What used to be highly costly to make publicly available in the past, now costs only fractions of cents per person to download from across the globe. Indeed, utilizing peer-based distributed networks such as BitTorrent, the cost could drop to near zero (on average.) TED is perhaps the best example of a similar model, although they rent a real venue with a rather elaborate and fancy stage. At TED the social aspect is as important as the ideas shared, which is enjoyed by a lucky (and wealthy) few. But the more the better.

The Reith Lectures are available for download some including transcripts as well. The list features names from all fields. Most notably are physicist Robert Oppenheimer (1953,) geneticist Steve Jones (1993,) neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran (2003,) and astronomer Martin Rees (2010.) I’m very happy to report that it reads ‘Indefinitely’ next to the availability tag.

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