What do ancient horses, cutlery, applause, randomised trials and snail genetics have in common? For a pretty random assortment of topics, they have a lot to do with each other, as they all featured in the last couple of episodes of BBC Radio 4 Material World, which after a stellar decade-and-a-half of being on air, has been taken off the airways.

The question of why a eulogy for a radio show has a simple answer; aside from being a personal favourite, Material World was at the forefront of science journalism and engagement – combining cutting edge research and genuinely interesting news on the grandiose and bizarre. So, what did it get right, wrong and all in-between?

First and foremost, Material World was well presented. From the unmistakable style of Quentin Cooper’s pun-filled introductions, to live interviews with real, practising scientists, Material World excelled in bringing you not only the new and exciting, but also a sense of being in there, at the edge of what is known and sharing your puzzlement with the very people who are pushing the boundaries of science. Giving a voice to scientists is important, both to the professional ones but also those who don the lab coat in their spare time – and Material World took citizen science seriously. Running the So You Want To Be A Scientists competition, it brought the world of science to the layman (and woman), allowing the public to propose experiments based on their ideas and experiences. Most importantly, it gave the intellectual lead to the citizen scientists, reminding us all that you don’t need a title or a fancy office at a university department to ask good questions.

Finally, one thing I would look forward to every week, was Cooper’s unrelenting insistence to put complex ideas in understandable terms, to take the magnificent and intricate and make it into the mundane and graspable, a great achievement in any field of science, let alone in the myriad covered in 14 years of broadcasting. Perhaps the highest point of every episode was hearing about quantum mechanics in terms of airborne pies or cheetahs racing skills in terms of the Dakar rally.

Science has had many voices, and few so quirky and charismatic as Quentin Cooper. I, for one, will look forward to his new adventures in science journalism and will gleefully remember pun-laden episodes from archaeology to zoology. So thanks for all the fun, and for reminding us we live in a Material World.


Past programs of Material World are available from BBC Radio 4 and Quentin Cooper’s past, present and future musings can be spied on @MaterialWorld.