Not with a Bang but a simper
September 17, 2010
While watching with head in hands the latest edition of the BBC’s ill-advised ‘science’ pop programme Bang Goes the Theory, I was left wondering why science is so poorly served on mainstream TV.
After all, ‘Bang’ (as one presenter coyly referred to it) is the Beeb’s most prominent science offering, discounting the otherwise excellent series such as Beautiful Minds, and Chemistry: A Volatile History which both aired on the minority BBC4.
What is it about Bang that is so toe-curlingly woeful? In the main, it is surely the wilful insulting of the viewer’s intelligence, presenting a sub-Blue Peter version of science that strips it of any complexity (naturally), but in so doing also strips it of wonder.
In this week’s offering, for example, we were assured by one presenter that melanin (the pigment that helps prevent sunburn) is “awesome”. In passing, she correctly referred to the role played in absorption of UV light, but no attempt was made to put the concept in context. What is UV light and its relation to visible light? why is UV light more harmful? what about other wavelengths, such as infrared? where does it fit into the spectrum? what is its relationship with energy, and who first theorised this (and how did this revolutionise physics)? In short, rather than unweaving a rainbow, Bang Goes the Theory ignored it.
A second, more substantive and satisfying piece considered what type of surface a square wheel is most suited to, but even here opportunities were missed. The surface, it turns out, must be made up of a series of curves. I’d initially guessed these would be parabolic, but Jem Stansfield showed the curve must be the catenary (although he didn’t use this term, of course) – which in itself has a fascinating history in which Galileo, Bernoulli and Euler all play a part. None of this appealed to the makers of Bang, of course.
These examples demonstrate a fundemental failure of nerve and of imagination. Nerve, because the implicit assumption is that science is so deadly dull that it needs to be sexed up. Imagination, because the only response to vacuity is indifference, not inspiration.