Bang goes that dumbing-down theory

Science on TV has had low expectations of audiences for too long, but a couple of new programmes have bucked the trend.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Science & Tech

The BBC have decided to make a Big Thing about science on television, particularly in relation to putting science back on its flagship channel BBC1 in primetime. But the really frustrating thing is how little faith the bosses at the BBC seem to have in their audience.

Since the demise of Tomorrow’s World in 2003, ostensibly because of falling ratings but most probably because people had given up on the idea that tomorrow’s world would look very different to today’s, science and technology shows had dropped out of mainstream viewing. Yes, there were always David Attenborough’s nature documentaries, magnificently photographed fables about the cycle of life, but that’s no way to inspire curiosity about how the world works more generally.

The comeback started with Bang Goes the Theory, wacky-but-watchable nonsense that tries to explain scientific ideas by doing fun stuff like blowing things up. No doubt, the success of Sky’s Brainiac convinced the Beeb that there’s a market for that kind of show. Unfortunately, such fun is often tempered by the influence of green ideas. For example, in December last year, the show featured a ‘human power shower’, showing how something as normal as taking a shower in fact uses bucket loads of electricity (see the video below). To illustrate the point, they had a room full of cyclists pedalling furiously to generate the energy required. The moral of the story, according to the show, was that we waste an awful lot of energy. Yet it could just as easily be argued that the exercise demonstrated the wonders of mass-produced, grid electricity. Learn to love that coal-fired power station, it makes all of our lives so much more comfortable.

But what’s really frustrating is the assumption that viewers need everything to be visualised because we can’t deal with big ideas, and that no programme should contain any more than three interesting statements of fact, which are then padded out with lots of shots of people in darkened rooms and a great deal of shaky camera work. I seem to remember the Steadicam, a shoulder-mounted film camera, featuring on Tomorrow’s World back in the day. Can’t they afford to buy them these days? Or do popular documentary makers think that the way to get a point across is to make the viewers nauseous?

This three-facts-per-hour fashion is particularly grating on BBC2’s long-running science strand, Horizon. I recently watched a programme that discussed the idea that the invention of cooking nearly two million years ago caused a major evolutionary leap forward. The trouble was that the programme took so long to get round to actually stating this point that there was very little time left to discuss whether it was really right or wrong. It’s not good to find yourself watching a science programme and shouting ‘GET ON WITH IT!’ at the TV.

This was also a problem with another potentially very interesting show, Jimmy’s Global Harvest. The presenter, Jimmy Doherty, was previously best known for a reality TV show about his pig farm and for being a childhood friend of Jamie Oliver. However, Doherty also holds a PhD in entomology and seems genuinely enthused by the innovations being made around the world to feed a rapidly growing population. In the episode where he visits Australia, Doherty showed us some clever techniques being used to deal with the increasing problem of soil salination, how Aussie vineyards are finding ways of getting more grapes with less water and how sheep farming was being replaced by goat herding. (Who knew that goat is actually the most popular red meat in the world?) Unfortunately, rather too much time was wasted watching Doherty operate a train horn rather than getting on with the truly fascinating subject matter of the show. Still, Doherty’s enthusiasm and his evident belief that the problem of producing food can be solved is a real breath of fresh air in our doom-laden times.

However, a couple of shows this week suggested to me that science TV may not entirely be heading for hell in a handcart. The first example was the latest episode of Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Solar System, discussing the formation of Saturn’s rings and how they could teach us a lot about the early days (well, the early few hundred million years, but it’s all relative) of the solar system itself. The programme managed to be visually interesting and to throw in fairly complex ideas, simply explained. Orbital resonance, anyone? It still suffered from a bit of skimping on the detail, however. You can’t just throw in a huge idea like ‘much of the Earth’s water actually came from comets made of ice crashing into it’, without discussing the evidence a bit more fully. That’s heavy stuff with all sorts of implications for the creation of life itself. When the show finished leaving me hankering for more, I got an inkling of how many women feel when their satisfied partners roll over and fall asleep without finishing the job.

More surprising still was Richard Hammond’s Invisible Worlds. Okay, it suffered from all the usual problems of big-budget TV series – such as the need to fly halfway round the world just to deliver two fairly anodyne lines to camera with an interesting backdrop. But in between, we were treated to some very interesting revelations generated by super-slow-motion filming: how bumble bees manage to fly with wings that look far too small; how raindrops actually look and behave (like self-destructing water hamburgers, it seems); and how lightning sometimes shoots upwards from the ground to the sky. Wild, wacky, probably a bit dumbed-down, but despite my best intentions I actually remained firmly parked on the sofa throughout.

So, dear TV commissioners, a heartfelt plea: science and technology can be fascinating and inspiring. You’ve obviously realised that there is an audience for it. Now please stop patronising that audience and try stretching us a bit more.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

The ‘human power shower’ on Bang Goes the Theory

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