Monday, 30 November 2009

Horizon Event: science broadcasting in the UK today

The BBC has borne the brunt of accusations in recent years regarding the dumming down of science broadcasting, but their 17th November Horizon episode 'How Long is a Piece of String?' shows that there is still hope. For a start, it lacked two of my pet hates that are seemingly mandatory in current documentaries: blurry hand-held shots joined by jump cuts and accompanied by a pop track that changes every five seconds; and slick computer graphics sequences repeated up to half a dozen times just to get the money's worth. MTV: you have a lot to answer for!

The rather silly Press moniker 'Everymoron' belies the fact that the show's presenter Alan Davies is ideal for the role, perfectly balancing a genuine desire to learn with the difficulty of understanding abstractions far removed from the every day. What starts with the appearance of a simple mechanical problem ends up with Alan delving into all sorts areas, from fractals to quantum electrodynamics. Davies' earlier Maths-orientated Horizon, 'Go Forth and Multiply', was great for those like me who didn't even get as far as calculus; this episode was an even better combination of exposition and entertainment.

Horizon has broadcast over one thousand episodes since 1964 but with its website no longer being updated and some fairly dubious programmes in the past decade verging on New Age quackery, it could appear there has been a major loss of nerve. Horizon's Channel Four equivalent, Equinox, made some excellent programmes over fifteen years before fizzling out of a regular slot in 2001. Surely it's inconceivable that the audience for these programmes has evaporated? Channel Four still makes a few interesting short series - Inside Nature's Giants springs to mind - but no annual shows. Most of the specialist satellite and cable channels just recycle the old favourites, and as for Channel Five...

One obvious problem is simple economics: documentaries aren't usually big money spinners compared to the reality rubbish that clogs our airtime, meaning international co-productions are a safer bet. And if the co-producer is American, there are obvious issues for any biology-related stories: "We've got to be careful now - we can't afford to lose all those channels in the Bible Belt!" But is this a side issue? Are we simply seeing a frightening reflection of a society that has lost confidence in science and is turning to spiritual beliefs old and new?

I really miss the large-scale one-off series (with accompanying book), such as the classics The Ascent of Man, Cosmos and The Day the Universe Changed. These were fantastic ventures, introducing science-orientated themes to large audiences. It seems that only David Attenborough can still command these sorts of budgets, although it would be difficult not to fund him considering how profoundly inspiring he is (I confess that several decades ago I met the great man and would certainly make an exception to the rule 'never meet your heroes').

But natural history is only one segment of the great sweep of science. Horizon has shown a predilection for what could be dubbed the historical/contingency sciences in the increasing frequency of its palaeontological and archaeological episodes, no doubt deemed safe bets considering the popularity of Time Team and all-things dinosaur. Of course archaeology is a humanity that makes use of scientific techniques, so for anyone tedious enough to follow Ernest Rutherford's view that all science is either physics or stamp collecting, this emphasis won't impress.

Talking of dinosauria, the BBC has gained enormous success with producer Tim Haines, from Walking With Dinosaurs and its sequels to Space Odyssey, but these are on the order of 'docufiction' and not a substitute for Horizon or Equinox at their best. The boundaries between evidence and speculation in Haines' series, although tempered by the companion books and 'making of' documentaries, are frequently blurred to such an extent as to give the impression much of the content is unimpeachable fact. I don't want to be a killjoy: the series are excellent fun, but they are not science documentaries.

On the other hand, shows based around practical experiments are on the increase, with even food programmes getting in on the act. Let's hope the likes of the BBC's Bang Goes The Theory and its companion website don't degenerate into the sort of lowbrow edutainment that defined the latter years of Tomorrow's World (you might be able to guess why I’m deliberately ignoring the likes of Click and Channel Five's The Gadget Show.)

Also, it's hard to dispute the excellence of science broadcasting on BBC Radio Four, with Leading Edge, Frontiers and Material World just a few of many regular series. Mention should also be made of Melvin Bragg's multi-disciplined In Our Time; it has some superb science episodes, supplying additional entertainment whenever he is called upon to pronounce 'spectroscopy'!

Where does QI fit in to all this? Stephen Fry tries hard despite the obvious gaps in his scientific knowledge, my favourite clanger being his 2005 remark that marsupials aren't mammals - eek! Having everyone's favourite quantum physicist-turned-comedian Ben Miller crop up now and then is a good idea, but if Alan Davies can keep up the good work on Horizon, perhaps we're in for some real treats. Here's to the 'Everymoron'!

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Ghost in the Machine: the LHC, 2012 and the death of the 5th sun

As pattern-seeking animals it's always interesting to see just how many correlations we can find that aren't actually there. If today's techno-hip population of humans were primarily rational creatures the failure of numerous apocalyptic prophecies over the past century would surely have put paid to this pseudoscientific cottage industry. Yet a Hollywood blockbuster is now capitalising on yet another date for Armageddon looming on the horizon: December 2012, the Mayan death of the fifth sun. I first read about this impending doom more than a decade ago courtesy of Graham Hancock (I know, I know, but I really believe you should read all sides to an argument). However, Mayan scholars are apparently undecided as to whether translations of the Mayan calendar are accurate as to both the date and magnitude of events, as there aren't any Mayans around to verify. Of course this hasn't stopped the wishful unthinkers from elaborating the prediction ad nauseam.

Turning from the ridiculous to the sublime, when the Large Hadron Collider was nearing operation in 2008 the media interest was frankly astonishing, making the LHC an international celebrity in its own right. I wonder that if despite the size and cost, would this interest have been as great if the Higgs Boson wasn't also known as the God particle? Although I recently noticed a mortgage advertisement that proclaimed their application process wasn't akin to writing a thesis on quantum physics (perhaps the latter is the new 'rocket science'), the public understanding of quantum theory is minimal considering how long it has been around. But perhaps it's not that surprising, since most people's idea of science still clings to Victorian notions of certainty and absolute truths, not ambiguity and probability waves, never mind 'spooky action at a distance'. After all, if even Einstein wasn't convinced, why should non-scientists jump up and down with anticipation? Just don't get me started on the Copenhagen Interpretation...

The LHC-doomsday combo came together in a formal scientific sense in 2007 with the first of Holger Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya's papers on whether 'something' from the future (insert creation overseer of your choice here) would sabotage the LHC and thus prevent it from destroying the Universe. The media seemed to have little idea how to handle the story when it was popularised this autumn: they were fairly certain it wasn't a spoof, yet its speculations veered towards the crackpot. Few journalists understand enough quantum theory to differentiate the implausible yet genuine hypothesis from the bizarre but almost certainly untenable. Perhaps JBS Haldane's classic 'the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose' would help, or Niels Bohr's comment as to whether a particular theory was crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.

Unfortunately other scientists don't want to debate Nielsen and Ninomiya's speculation but promptly shrug it off as a wacky thought experiment that got far too much attention. Yet wouldn't this have been a perfect opportunity to publicise the self-correcting aspect of the scientific method whilst relaying a little quantum mechanics along the way (not to mention convincing the tax payers of 40+ nations that all our little contributions were well spent)? A lot of post-nineteenth century physics started solely as thought experiments (okay, and maybe some impenetrable maths too), until years' later the experimenters managed to catch up. I'm no N&N fan club, but as the collider nears full operation surely the CERN staff would be pleased with any public elucidation. A few less worriers might help to lessen the phone calls pleading for the LHC to be shut down before it causes the end of the world...

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