The Expanding Universe of TV Science

There was a brief but beautiful moment in the BBC’s Stargazing Live last week which, for me, encapsulated some interesting departures for science broadcasting.  This took the form of an unexpected utterance by half of the presenter-entity, Dara O’Brian-Cox.  Let me transcribe it, with just a touch of poetic license:

BRIAN COX: <Indicating the equation form of Hubble’s Law on a blackboard>, if you rearrange and cancel these two units of distance, you end up with a unit of time, and this is the age of the universe.  If you’re the one to send me the first correct answer, via Twitter, I’ll…

BRIAN COX’S eyes widen slightly, as endless possible prizes flash through his mind.  Something space-related, surely?  A meal for two on the Moon? Your name engraved on a galaxy?  Renaming the Sun?  But no; a primordial urge, a base human instinct, surges through him, overpowering all else and emerging as…

BRIAN COX:  … I’ll buy you a pint.

It was a somewhat minor feature of the series, granted.  But it intrigued me nonetheless.   For me, science broadcasting has always been the lyricism of Carl Sagan, the urgent drama of Horizon, the general wonderfulness of David Attenborough. But, great as these shows often are, I just can’t imagine Sagan offering any of his millyuns and millyuns of viewers a night of pub-based passion.  This incident came hot on the heels of Dara O’Briain’s Science Club: a show somewhere between science chatshow and gadgetry show-and-tell, presented by a standup comedian, set in a disused1 warehouse.  A departure from tradition, to say the least.  But sandwiched between these two young rebels was that grand old staple of public science, the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures.  A most delicious comparison sandwich, just waiting to be served.  So here you are.

We’re talking about TV, so let’s start with a popular history of science talking point: the theme of imagery.  As is going to be apparent, that term subsumes quite a lot of stuff.  So let’s begin with the idea of science being ‘made visible’.  In this sense the excellent Dr. Peter Wothers2 was following in a fine old Royal Institution (R.I.) tradition passed down by Michael Faraday, John Tyndall, and other famous Victorian lecturers (though sadly Wothers decided not to maintain the equally fine sideburn tradition).  I’d thoroughly recommend Wothers’ lectures, which were based on the theme of alchemical elements – they’re great showpieces, particularly as he’s clearly heard the old actors’ maxim of ‘never work with children or fire’ and decided to reverse it in a very big way.  But all the bright lights and magic sparks favoured by R.I. lecturers across the ages don’t just serve to keep everyone (most of all the lecturer) bouncing with excitement.  It’s their primary reason, but they also serve as a sort of visibility valve for nature.  They take natural laws which usually happen fairly innocuously – electrostatic charges, releases of energy, etc. – and magnify them.  Despite the fame or charisma of the lecturer, the attention is being focussed on nature.  The lecturers’ aim is to make themselves as invisible as possible; they merely provide the small touch of a lighted stick, or drop a little chemical somewhere, and nature HAPPENS.  The R.I. might attract (probably electromagnetically) the best lecturers of the day, but the take-home message is ‘isn’t nature awesome?’

(Historical aside – in the times of Faraday, there was another important point to making the lecturer and his tools ‘invisible’.  Faraday saw himself as a ‘natural philosopher’; his friend William Whewell invented the words ‘scientist’ and ‘physicist’  during his lifetime, but he rejected both, partly on the grounds that he found the latter unpronounceable.  Faraday was trying to present ‘science’ as a clean, respectable, philosophical pursuit to his clean, respectable upper-class audience; as such he had to efface the image of a workmanlike scientist, grubbing away with experimental tools, from their view.  Similarly, the fact that Faraday could reproduce experiments at will was a sign that an experimental scientific method was a good way of uncovering universal objective facts about the universe, at a time when this was a less widely accepted claim than today).

But let’s not make this a centre-of-attention fight of nature vs the lecturer / presenter.  Although the alleged stars of the show might be the stunning imagery, it’s still *Brian Cox’s* Wonders or *Carl Sagan’s* Cosmos or whatever.  The images filling the screen frequently display nature as a frame around the presenter; we watch the presenter watching nature, and both are kept constantly visible.  And when a guest expert features, they’re usually in front of a blackboard or their Massive Science Machine.  The whole setup screams ‘awesome science is done by awesome people’.  Awesome here is used quite literally:  meant to inspire awe, to be overawing rather than approachable, to remind us how awfully massive The Goals Of Science can be.  By contrast Stargazing Live and Science Club showed quite a few departures.  These included:

–  The informality of the settings, where notable scientific experts chatted on couches and experiments used hammers and household microwaves

–  The use of science to answer diverse small questions (how does autotune work? Why is Curiosity so slow?), rather than just big ones (woah man why’s all this stuff here?)

–  Interactivity, whether long-range via Twitter or by very unstructured conversations.  Or both simultaneously.   

–  Dara O’Briain.  Seriously, he’s everywhere sciencey nowadays.  I was half-trying to spot him camouflaging himself in amongst the children in the R.I. audience.  Which for him would be quite an achievement.

And this is where we broaden our idea of ‘imagery’ a bit.  Sure, the general aesthetic was noticeably different; instead of Brian being silhouetted against starry skies, accompanied by dramatic music, the ‘look’ tended towards ‘ever-so-slightly-cluttered shed’ (replete with experimental setups constructed from basic stationary, and a series of random surfaces at just the right height for Brian to maintain constant nonchalant leaning).  But ‘images of science’ is also used in science studies to mean something like ‘what the public picture or imagine science to be like’.  What being a scientist is like, what scientists are like as a breed, that stuff.  And here the role of the presenters and guest experts was really quite different.  As I’ve noted, the shows were informal, interactive, and based around direct answering of particular questions.  The presenters came across as much more like teachers than oracles, and the experts were there because of their ability to answer questions, not to show off their particular project.  A particularly interesting development was including non-scientific specialisms; the excellent Alok Jha asked pointed journalistic questions with more than a hint of combative relish, while comedian chums of Dara’s served an important role in discussions as professional laypeople.3  Although there were discussions of big questions, there were also setpieces about how to do better stargazing, or what’s inside an electric guitar.  Cosmos and Wonders give the viewer an image of science as a dramatic, emotionally-charged pursuit of ultimate truth; Science Club and Stargazing Live gave an image of science as a process of knowing, discussing, and debating individual facts and their implications, like a really interesting class or an incredibly overqualified pub chat.

So where does this leave Dr. Wothers and the R.I.?  Well, they serve to remind us that these ‘departures’ aren’t entirely new.  The interactive questioning-and-answering format has always been a feature of lecturing.  Occasional interjection of (often studied) informality has been used as a tool by popular scientists from Tyndall to Sylvanus P. Thompson to Wothers.In particular, John Tyndall had a penchant for a demonstration experiment in which he used a beam of radiation to light his cigar (this was prior to the invention of both health and of safety).  High levels of informality isn’t entirely new either; I suspect Science Club has borrowed somewhat from the experiences of Bang Goes the Theory, while Brian’s long-running Infinite Monkey Cage can hardly be described as ‘formal’.  Finally, whether the focus is on nature or questions or whatever, a presenter has never been able to become completely invisible.  People came to the R.I. because Faraday was lecturing, and people watch Stargazing and Science Club because Dara O’Brian-Cox is presenting.  But it’s nice to see the clout of big names propelling informal science discussion into the mainstream in increasing quantity.  Sure, interactive Q&A has been around for quite a long time, but the combination of live broadcasting and Twitter extends the reach somewhat.  It’s just a shame that @JohnTyndallCP didn’t make use of this sooner.  

Let’s wrap up by one final return to the idea of imagery.  We’ve touched on a few separate notions: the visibility of nature, the aspect of scientists, the perceptions of science.  But naturally they’re all linked.  How popular programmes show nature affects how audiences think scientists go about investigating nature, what the purpose of science is, and so on.  These ‘departures’ don’t have to be new to be good – they still serve to make mainstream television a place where people can access increasingly diverse images of science, each with its own particular appeal.  That’s why the Hubble’s Law Challenge interested me so much.  From 1988, when Stephen Hawking was told ‘every equation halves your audience number’, we’re at a stage where audiences are being offered algebra problems on prime-time TV.  And if there’s a free pint in the bargain, all the better.


1 = Although, as always puzzles me whenever this trope appears in films, TV shows and the like, how a disused warehouse can be used as a location for something but still remain disused is somewhat paradoxical.

2 = I’ve actually had the immense pleasure of being lectured by Dr. Wothers.  After years of a constantly hungover first-year undergraduate audience, keeping small children entertained must have been a doddle.

3= And, pleasingly, they didn’t just adopt a “I’m a stupid layperson please provide me with all your pre-scripted explanations for everything Professor Scientist” approach, but actually took a more ‘I keep hearing this mentioned, is it true?’ or ‘yes but what is that thing exactly?’ tack.  More like an actual intelligent layperson, to be precise.

4 = And, for that matter, Sagan again.  I’ve been compiling a list of Sagan interview quotes for a research project I’m doing, and some of them – particularly when he’s talking to children – are really quite charmingly casual.  If you’re reading this thinking ‘I could really do with a collation of Carl Sagan interview quotes’, feel free to get in touch.

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