But the fun never went out of science

The Guardian’s youthful science correspondent, Alok Jha, has a new article up on CiF that manages to be both uplifting and frustrating in equal measure.

The uplift part is, of course, the bigging up of everyone from Robin Ince and his excellent Radio 4 show the Infinite Monkey Cage to the growing network of Skeptics in the Pub meetings via a detour or two which takes in Brian Cox, Dara O’Briain and the glorious Wellcome Collection.

The frustration comes with his introductory paragraphs which are, to slightly paraphrase the great Wolfgang Pauli, ‘Not even wrong’.

Michael Faraday’s lectures at London’s Royal Institution in the early 19th century were so popular that the carriages dropping people off to see him used to choke Albemarle Street in Mayfair – as a result, the street was designated the first one-way road in London. Faraday was a master communicator who thrilled audiences with the latest discoveries in chemistry and electricity. He was as much a brilliant entertainer as a great scientist.

Somewhere over the course of the 20th century, though, the idea that entertainment could be a vehicle for science faded away, even as the fruits of scientific endeavour became more important and relevant to people’s lives. As scientists became more professional after the second world war, the discipline grew up and lost its fun. For those who weren’t experts, and didn’t have time to learn the often complex basics, it also became dauntingly difficult. Science was too serious, too important, to make entertaining.

For anyone who cares that science should be a central part of our culture, this is clearly a disastrous conclusion. Fortunately for us, an emerging army of geeks, comedians and scientists is bringing back the Faraday-style spectacle.


Somewhere over the course of the 20th Century the idea the idea that entertainment could be a vehicle for science faded away???

Shit, I must have missed that completely – or perhaps Alok’s not being paying attention.

Admittedly youth is not, perhaps, on Alok’s side here. It’s strange, for example, that he starts by referencing Michael Faraday’s public lectures but fails to acknowledge one of Faraday’s great legacies, the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. I watched these avid as a child and I’m happy to say that I still make a point of tuning in today – you can keep your turkey and tinsel, that’s what Christmas is all about, 3-5 hours of wonderful, accessible and entertaining science lectures on your tellybox.

I’m roughly the same age as both Brian Cox and Robin Ince and would venture that all three of us share much the same formative experiences – in fact, in one case I know for fact of one that all three of us share.

So, going back to those formative years, and addition to the Christmas lectures, I had the great Johnny Ball to ignite my interest in mathematics and science, while engineering was well catered for by the delightful Professor Heinz Wolff and The Great Egg Race. the small scale progenitor of Channel 4′s Scrapheap Challenge. If your tastes ran more toward zoology and natural history there was Johnny Morris and his lemurs after school and Jacques Cousteau in the early evening if you fancied something a little more watery, plus Anglia Television’s ‘Survival’ and the BBC’s Wildlife on One.

And, of course, no list of the great popular science programmes of all-time would be complete without Tomorrow’s World which. even today. still has geeks of my generation wondering what happened to the flying cars we were promised back in 1975.

Moving ahead to that one formative experience that I know I share with Brian Cox and Robin Ince, I was at that point in life where science was starting to take a more serious turn, i.e studying for ‘O’ level, when an American scientist with a melodious voice and rather curious accent invaded my TV screen and introduced me to a single but very important fact – ‘The oooniverse is a wundiful place’ – and to mind-expanding realms of cosmology.

I’m referring, of course, to Carl Sagan and ‘Cosmos: A Personal Voyage’, 13 weeks of unmissable television and a once in a lifetime journey through the universe in a dandelion-seed spacecraft with one of the greatest science communicators of all-time as my own personal guide. Sagan, and his accent, quickly became a cult figure in my ‘O’ level Physics class and drove the teacher to distraction as he struggled to keep us focussed on Ohm’s law when our heads were full of Einstein, red and blue shifts and neutron stars and black holes.

Cosmos was the third in a run of major popular science series at the end of the 70s that, with Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, set the format for pretty much every set-piece series that followed, the other two being James Burke’s entertaining romp through the history of science, Connections, and undisputed daddy of natural history series’, Life on Earth, although, after leaving school, I moved on to getting my regular fix of popular science from Horizon, QED and Channel 4′s Equinox, the big set-piece series continued to be major TV events that provided education and entertainment in pretty much equal measure.

In the mid 80s, James Burke weighed in with The Day the Universe Changed, and the jewel in the BBC’s popular science crown, the Natural History Unit, would – every 2-3 years or so, chip in with a new Attenborough to go with its regular output of Wildlife on One and Natural World.

Seriously, if Attenborough’s Life series doesn’t provide you with enough spectacle, what more do you want?

To save time, let’s skip the chronology and throw out just a few more names at random – Walking with Dinosaurs, Nina and the Neurons, Space, The Really Wild Show, Brainiac: Science Abuse and Channel 4′s long-running archaeology show Time Team.

Yes, Time Team – think about it for a second and try and name another popular programme that’s done more to introduce the public to geophysics plots, ground penetrating radar, osteoarchaeology, dendrochronology and carbon-14 dating. You can’t – and that’s without taking into account the fact that the show’s entire format is based entirely on the business of locating, digging up and interpreting evidence – if that ain’t science, nothing is.

It might feel like there’s a bit of a popular science renaissance going on at the moment thanks to Robin, Brian, Dara and others plus the emergence of a new generation of first rate science communicators, including Jim Al-Khalili, Michio Kaku and Marcus Du Sautoy – thank you BBC 4 – but in reality they’re just the latest in long line of academics that have carried forward the good work that Faraday began.

In the television age that lineage of great science communicators, people with the gift of making science entertaining and accessible is one that runs from Sir Patrick Moore to Brian Cox and from Sir David Attenborough to Steve Backshall and includes everyone from Flanders and Swann – I’m happy to say that I’ve got a copy of First and Second Law on my MP2 player- to Eric Idle (Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving and revolving at 900 miles an hour…) through to Dara O’Briain and Robin Ince.

It hasn’t faded away, not in my lifetime and certainly not in Alok’s, so one cannot really say that geeks, comedians and academics are putting the fun back into science because they never stopped doing that in the first place.

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  • Dunc

    Actually, for my money, Time Team is probably the most genuinely scientific of the lot, because you actually get to see the sausage being made, with all the mistakes, wrong turns and dead ends along the way. They don’t just present the final result, they show the process, in all its messy glory.