The BBC and the History of Science: Light and Shadows.

The BBC is the oldest public broadcasting company in the world and with certainty one of the most well known. It has a long history of broadcasting science and history of science programmes on both radio and television. On television the many documentaries of David Attenborough on natural history and anthropology being justifiably famous examples of the former and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man being a legendary example of the latter; a programme and its book that strongly influenced my own interest in the history of science. I still have the book on my bookshelf almost forty years later.

Unfortunately not all of the BBC’s history of science productions reach the high standards set by Bronowski. All to often the programmes are conceived and moderated not by historians of science but by scientists who deliver up a mixture of myths and falsehoods that make me bang my head against my desk. A recent example was Marcus de Sautoy’s Precision: The Measure of All Things. The seven minute excerpt on YouTube on The Original Metre contains so many errors and falsehoods that a talk listing and explaining them all would be three time as long as the original clip. This must not however be the case between the shadows there are sometimes beams of light a recent example being Simon Schaffer’s Mechanical Marvels. Schaffer is of course a historian of science.

Recently my attention has been drawn to two examples of history of science broadcasting, one brilliant sunshine the other darkest shadows. We’ll start with the good news. For the last two weeks BBC Radio 4 has been broadcasting a new series titled Seven Ages of Science, conceived and presented by a sparkling Lisa Jardine (@ProfLisaJardine), who is not only a historian of science but also an experienced broadcaster and Jacob Bronowski’s daughter. Like father like daughter! Judging by the first two, these half hour broadcasts are excellently researched and scripted and are presented not only by Ms Jardine but by a veritable who’s who of British historians of science. In the first broadcast we had, amongst others, Simon Schaffer, who must by now be considered the doyen of British historians of science, Jim Bennett, one of the world’s top historians of scientific instruments and Felicity Henderson (@felicityhen) up and coming expert on Robert Hooke who entertains us all on Twitter with excerpts from Hooke’s Diary (@HookesLondon) a volume that she is currently editing for publication. The second broadcast brought us Richard Holmes, whose The Age of Wonder is one of the best recent popular history of science publications, Andrea Wulf (honorary Brit @andrea_wulf) author of equally excellent books on the history of horticulture and The Transit of Venus and a whole army of other equally illustrious historians.

I won’t attempt to try and described the aims and achievements of this series as my history of science soul sister Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt has already done a much better job than I could in her review of the first episode, which you can and should read here. You can download broadcast episodes of the series here and listen to the current broadcasts for the next five weeks on Tuesday evenings at 9:00 pm (BST) or Wednesday afternoon at 4:30 pm (BST). I can only recommend that you do, this is history of science broadcasting at its best.

At the other extreme we have another BBC production BBC 2 television’s Dara Ó Briain’s Science Club. I must admit that I’ve never seen this programme but I have come across complaints in the Internet that when they deal with the history of science it is done by scientists and not historians and done very badly. Just how badly I had the chance to discover on last Friday as people started tweeting a link to a four-minute animation, from the broadcast, written and narrated by Dara Ó Briain, a comedian, with the title The Story of Physics. This is unbelievably bad. Not only is the history of science done abysmally it even manages to get the science badly wrong in places.

Whereas a central emphasis of the Seven Ages of Science is to place the practice of science into its social, economic and political contexts, which is in my opinion the only correct way to do the history of science, Science Club’s The Story of Physics falls back on the total myth of the lone genius presenting its narrative around the four physicists Galileo, Newton, Clerk Maxwell and Einstein totally devoid of all context. This alone would make this animation only fit for the trash bin but it gets worse.

To start off we get informed that for the last three hundred years physics has been all about … and then we start with Galileo at the beginning of the sixteen hundreds. Now, to be extra sure, I’ve calculated this on my computer, with my pocket calculator, on paper with a pencil and even counted it on my fingers and from 1600 to 2000 always comes out as four hundred years not three hundred; to say the least a somewhat embarrassing start to the story of mathematical physics. We then get told that Galileo got the ball rolling by rolling balls down a slope and timing them. We don’t get told why he did this but apparently he also timed pendulums. Again we don’t get told why. Next up we have him dropping things off the Tower of Pisa! We’ve hit the jackpot, a very hoary, very old myth that should be banished from any discussion of Galileo. Of course we can’t have Galileo without mentioning the Catholic Church. We have Galileo annoying the Pope because apparently his ideas made God very cross.  Now Galileo did have a dispute with the Catholic Church over his attempts to re-interpret the Bible to fit his views on cosmology and astronomy but those are mentioned here at all. The Church didn’t give a damn about his experiments with balls and pendulums so we already have a major historical fail on our hands. We of course close with Galileo being dubbed the father of science a misnomer that I have dealt with extensively here.

Moving on to Newton we get told that he was free from angry Popes. Just for the record Newton spent far more time and energy proving that the Catholic Church had falsified the Bible than he ever spent of studying maths or physics; he even learnt Hebrew in order to do so. He wasn’t as free of Popes as one might think. In case anybody should think that this is irrelevant, Newton’s views on God and religion were central to his whole study of nature and its laws. We are then treated to the worst of all myths and clichés in the history of science Newton being hit on the head by an apple! “Why he thought did they always fall downwards and not sideways or up?” Ugh! This is probably the most stupid statement on the history of science that has ever polluted my ears. It goes on, “By 1687 he had an answer it was a force called gravity that worked on balls and apples and planets holding them in nice predictable orbits around the sun.” Where to begin? That the orbits of the planets were predictable had been known since about 500 BCE and Newton never questioned that apples and all object on the earth fall downwards. His thought was rather, was the force that caused object to fall to the earth the same as the force that prevents the moon (and all the other planets) from shooting off at a tangent to its orbit as the law of inertia said it should. His very complex calculations showed that this was indeed the case and that there is a force of attraction between any two bodies for which he used the term gravity; a term used by Aristotle to describe the tendency of objects to fall to the ground.

In the eighteen hundreds we have James Clerk Maxwell discovering electromagnetism without any mention of the contributions of Ørsted, Ampère and above all Faraday but interestingly he is credited with saying that light travels in waves. Now Huygens and Hooke in the seventeenth century and Young and Fresnel in the nineteenth are going to be pretty pissed off with having their achievements attributed to Mr Clerk Maxwell.

We are then treated to a general piece about the gathering explanatory problems in physics as the nineteenth century progressed and Kelvin’s dark clouds speech from 1900. Now Kelvin’s speech specifically references the Michelson-Morley experiment results and the black body radiations problem neither of which is mentioned in the Science Club animation and would have been a perfect introduction to Einstein who appears out of nowhere next waving his magic wand and redefining all of physics. I’m not going to go into the highly condensed rendition of all of Einstein’s achievements but two points did rather annoy me.

First off Einstein is introduced as a patent clerk from Bern, whilst this is factually correct stated as it is without further qualification it is highly misleading. Einstein had a very good doctorate in physics from a top European university and his work at the patent office was to evaluate patents based on advanced physics not exactly the image evoked by calling him a patent clerk. The other point is one that almost everyone gets wrong the video states that he published his famous equation E=Mc2 in 1905, he didn’t. You can go through all of the papers Einstein published in that year and you won’t find that equation anywhere.

The Science Club animation is a wonderful example of how not to do history of science and why the media should stop allowing scientists, comedians and who ever happens to be available to present history of science and should employ genuine historians of science instead.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

50 responses to “The BBC and the History of Science: Light and Shadows.

  1. laura

    Even Voltaire was skeptical about the apple story.

  2. Bronowski’s ‘The Ascent of Man’ was also a big influence on me. I also have my original (softback) book, plus a second (hardback) copy I picked up in a second-hand book shop last year. I was delighted when the series was finally released on DVD.

    In (slight) defence of Marcus de Sautoy’s ‘Precision: The Measure of All Things’ (although I have only seen the second episode so far), quite a large proportion of the programme I saw was about contemporary attempts to redefine/improve standard measures; the programme wasn’t just about the history of science—so a historian of science might not have been the ideal choice of presenter either (although, clearly, whoever does present it needs to get the history bits right).

    I know it’s not science, but I’m greatly enjoying Michael Wood’s new series about Anglo-Saxon Britain. As a schoolboy mad about all things Tolkien, I was hooked on his 1979 series, ‘In Search of the Dark Ages’. I still have my copy of the accompanying book, which I was presented with as a prize at school. He’s a great presenter, and it’s good to see him back talking about his specialist area. I saw him lecture about St Cuthbert once, and he was excellent. (P.S. I know we’re not supposed to refer to the ‘dark ages’ these days, but I don’t care: it’s a cool name, and, in this case, applies only to British history).

  3. Matthew Cobb

    Well the animation they did about the history of reproduction was pretty good, though that might have had something to do with the hour long chat I had to them about it and my book that I sent them. 🙂 The history of physics, being more known (or not) might not have been subject to the same expertise.

    In terms of the Seven Ages, I tweeted slightly facetiously that it didn’t have any scientists on. That this would have been useful was shown when Prof Jardine and Felicity H admitted they weren’t sure whether Hooke’s drawing of a louse actually looked like a louse (it does). The issue of whether Hooke’s drawings actually represent what they claimed to represent is not entirely minor in understanding the history of microscopy and of representation, I would suggest.

    This is a pretty minor point, but it illustrates that we all have complementary expertise; asking scientists for their reaction to drawings/results/interpretations would be interesting, if only because science is not just another story, it does have a Whiggish dimension in that it does progress (in a messy and partial way to be sure).

    The problem is, of course, that scientists generally just see the Whiggish linearity and have an utterly internalist view. That makes for poor history.

    • Matthew Cobb

      Professor Jardine has said on Twitter that the louse business was dramatic licence. My apologies. I didn’t get it. As someone who does both science and history, I still think having context is useful in both historical and science programmes.

  4. Jeb

    I imagine sometimes you just do not want the call. I remember reading an article in which the newspaper concerned had contact a historian I know asking if he thought it valid that some modern version of the order of the golden dawn was seeking permission to excavate Rossyln chapel as they believed it to be the resting place of the holy grail.

    I don’t think the paper ran with his initial response and instead went with the family friendly version rather than oh for fucks sake.

  5. Michael Weiss

    The Story of Physics reminds me a bit of Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land, although the latter was probably more accurate…

    Unclear who’s responsible for the content; there’s no writing (dis)credit. So this may not be an instance of a physicist ignoring historians, but rather the (sadly too common) attitude that if it’s an animation, hey, who cares about the content.

  6. Adam Rutherford

    Hello. Some comments from an insider, who has been a scientist, has written and presented programmes on television and radio, some of which contained history of science (small caps). In general, presenters are chosen only partially because of their expertise in a particular area. Certainly, someone with a background in genetics (such as myself) has a more natural fit with programmes about genetics and synthetic biology, as my oevre has included. But I have been part of programmes that meander towards current research by way of tracking and understanding the history of that field. So in order to get to synthetic biology in one doc series I made, we had effectively told a/the history of biology from 1670 on. I hope that we did a thorough job, and made a series which was both accurate and compelling TV. Needless to say, in such a superficial medium, one has to be selective about the narrative, and doubly so in order to show interesting pictures. But those are the constraints of television. I was aware of one vocal critic who claimed that our representation of one particular microscope was misleading and inaccurate, but I stand by the points we were making and how we did it. Errors are of course not desirable at all, though it does happen. I stood in front of a right-spiralling CG DNA molecule in one programme, and will never make that mistake again.

    On the wonderful Seven Ages with Lisa Jardine. Given how the show goes to lengths to avoid the whiggish version of the history of science, I feel that I might enlighten the production process here somewhat to avoid your making a similar mistake. The show was conceived by the Radio 4 Science Unit, and researched by them, guests screened and selected, largely specifically by one producer, who in this case was a scientist before joining the BBC. This is the model for most programmes. They are team efforts, and this is nothing to denigrate PROF Jardine, and her sparkling series that she presents wonderfully. Presenters frequently come to the process late, and front the production, bringing their expertise and personality. But they are never, categorically never, one-man (or woman) shows. The best, even Bronowski, are assembled by brilliant people working in teams. Sometimes they don’t work, and we could spend years deconstructing what hasn’t worked and why not (from a production point of view, rather than merely the bit that you get to see, or hear). Who was it who said that 90% of everything was crap? I think that we are lucky that there is so much science on TV and radio that we can even have this conversation (then again, I am employed by the BBC these days).

    I think my general point is that high quality presenters, with high quality teams behind them produce good shows, not regardless of their specific expertise, but through hard graft, meticulous research, good consultation (Matt Cobb and Nick Lane were series consultants for Wonders of Life. For the Cell, we had Steve Jones and Henry Harris) and careful scripting.

    There is no model that works across all media in all subjects, with every presenter. I’m not really into naming the ones that don’t work so well, but there is a litany of shows that do, whose presenter was not a scholar of that field (and most of the following contain significant chunks of science history): Jim Alkhalili on Everything or Nothing, Atom; Alice Roberts on ice age everything, Brian Cox in Wonders, Kev Fong on the Last Shuttle, Dallas Campbell on Voyager, Mark Everett in Parallel Worlds Parallel Lives, Richard Hammond on.. sorry that’s not even funny.


    • Rebekah Higgitt

      I know enough of being at the end of a phone, and occaionally a mike, to know how collaborative a process making a programme is, and how some researchers and producers are prepared to listen and some will not let their preconceived narrative be disrupted. I know advisors on Seven Ages of Science and that not everything went the way they would have liked, but by choosing an expert presenter, the likelihood of straying too badly wrong is minimised.

      But it is not just a question of factual errors, it’s also about the shape of the whole. History programmes don’t feel the need to tell a story that rides right through to the present (that way lies linerarity, whiggism, presentism and other historiographical sins) but history of science programmes conceived within science units and based around the narrative arc of a scientist tracing back from where we are today usually do – as, for example, the meander toward current research mentioned here. Errors creep in as vast swathes of history covering hugely changing science and contexts are tackled in half an hour. Simon Schaffer’s recent programme on automata was very refreshing simply for giving time to create a real sense of a particular period,

    • Jeb

      As a non pro historian I will stick two pence worth in as I have no insider interest. You make some very valid points. Particularly with regard to the way criticism (from the little I have read) has focused on front of house and the presenter as responsible for the script.

      But I don’t think that really matters. It would seem that part of the audience the B.B.C. has feels that it is not represented. Its the key point and I don’t think you addressed that concern but dismissed it.

      I don’t think the argument is simply that historians should be fronting program’s or that concern is based on of a lack of understanding with regard to the issues of producing a television program despite the errors that have certainly been made.

  7. Adam Rutherford

    I agree with much of what you say here, and watch history programmes as an inexpert punter. I also try to watch science programmes not as an expert science type, but as someone who understands the production process. But that’s by the by. The realities of commissioning and audience expectation and demand (however accurate, or otherwise, that might be), mean that the inclusion of history into science narratives is a popular and common device for framing current research. I wonder whether recent history of political prgrammes might benefit from adopting this model in science programming, when it has worked.

    I confess I didn’t see Automata, so cannot comment on the specifics.

    ‘not everything went the way they would have liked, but by choosing an expert presenter, the likelihood of straying too badly wrong is minimised’

    This is an interesting expression, as it implies that there is a right way to do things, and that is the decree of academic experts on the field, rather thatthe profund craft expertise of the producers. I think the medium determines the narrative as much as the advice and scholarly concensus. There is no right way to tell a story. And so, though it seems like a cripplingly low bar, being factually not wrong is the base line.

    • Rebekah Higgitt

      I simply meant right or wrong in the view of the people that the producers and researchers have themselves decided are the kind of expert they need to consult for their programme. Though their complaints are often pretty much on the “it’s factually wrong despite what I said” front.

      People may be interested to see some similar conversations at my blog

    • Rebekah Higgitt

      Adam – for a consultant (albeit a scientist with historical expertise rather than an historian of science) having a difficulties in geting (some but not all) of the errors corrected, see this comment on my blog

      The post also shows how much experts can disagree with each other, but I think we’re aware of when that’s the case and when there are errors. It wouold be great to have more programmes that show experts disagreeing.

    • Thony C

      I realise that there are more than one way of doing things however I feel I must join Becky here, my complaints are almost always the case of broadcasts simply getting the facts wrong.

      In my life I’ve come across quite a lot of cases in history broadcasts of academic experts being told by producers that they don’t care if it’s factually wrong that’s the way that they are going to do it.

  8. Jeb

    Craft wins out every time. Its not part of a performers role to give an audience what it wants or expects but the skill of any performer is to ensure that the diverse horde in front of it becomes absorbed in the performance.

    In order to do that you are constantly focusing on the area of the audience that is in a state of drift, changing inflection and pulling it back in. Appeals to expertise or past experience are meaningless when you are confronted with the reality of a restless bum on a seat.

    Its what the art and craft of performance is all about. Nothing else matters.

    • Jeb

      Successful performance opens a space where anything is possible. The expertise and craft is that it does so with a limited tool kit and a serious range of constraints.

  9. Curly

    ‘not everything went the way they would have liked, but by choosing an expert presenter, the likelihood of straying too badly wrong is minimised’

    What is stunning here is that some clearly expect that an expert history presenter is also an expert in TV/Radio production. As with any collaboration between different disciplines, each must respect the other’s expertise and nothing will go exactly the way one person wants. In any good production, compromises must be made.

    You have to be able to tell a story that is both compelling and easy to follow. This is not the same as writing a paper, and it’s a producer’s job to make sure that a presenter can tell a good story, as well as an accurate one.

    It may seem like being a presenter is an simple job, because the best ones make it look easy. In fact, it’s incredibly hard and has very little overlap with the skills of academia or writing. The last poster has it sussed – it’s the performance and sparkle that’s the key and I can say from experience that it often takes years to perfect with a new presenter.

    This is why there aren’t hundreds of good expert presenters out there, and the ones that excel are used again and again.

    • I don’t think anyone commenting here is quite this naive about the production process – most of the historians I see here have participated in radio and TV productions and are involved with the media on a regular basis, so let’s not start with ‘you don’t know how TV works!’ as a line to dismiss concerns.

      Personally, I still think that part of the problem is about respect for expertise, and the status of ‘scientists’ culturally; but let’s put that aside and assume that it is actually only about the pool of presenters and the challenge of training and promoting them. In that case this is still a problem about representation. If the knee-jerk response to ‘we want to make a history programme about science’ is ‘let’s find a science presenter to front it!’ then historians of science will continue to be underrepresented in the media, and won’t be given the opportunity to refine or demonstrate their skills.
      That might not matter one iota to science-loving publics, or even the general public, who are happy with the current quality and style of history of science on TV and radio. But it is going to mean historians of science continue to find these programmes…underwhelming. (It also continues to present a popular representation of ‘scientists’ as polymaths able to jump between and master disciplines, while other experts are confined in a more limited field.)

      There are historians out there who are as articulate, approachable, witty charismatic (even, oh dear, attractive) as any popular scientist. Yet they’re not on TV, and they’re rarely on the radio. At very least, thinking about why that might be the case says some interesting sociological things about knowledge, expertise, representation, the cultural weight of disciplines, yadda.

      • Rebekah Higgitt

        Worth adding in here Mary Beard’s great post on the process of making a history programme with an expert presenter

        I have also been enjoying Michael Wood’s programmes on the Anglo-Saxons – ‘written and presented’ by…

      • Adam Rutherford

        I understand your (plural) familiarity with the production process, though the original post does suggest that Seven Ages’ excellence is solely because of its presenter.

        But being familiar doesn’t mean expertise in actually delivering a show. So for example, if your biggest issue is underrepresentation of historians of science as a field, then there are several problems with this as a stance. There is no obligation to represent any field via presenter expertise. I don’t think there ever has been. The decisions made by commissioners on who fronts programmes are often whimsical and experimental, but they are pretty much never to do with tryng to represent a specific field of study. Tastes are highly variable in presenters, and while I’m sure you are right that your field has ‘articulate, approachable, witty charismatic (even, oh dear, attractive)’ characters, as all fields do, maybe not accountancy, I don’t think there is any sense in TV or radio production that balanced representation trumps a character that works on screen.

        Similarly, within science programming, given that 70% of all research is biomedical, physics, maths and astonomy are grossly over-represented on TV and radio. Is this a problem too? I’m not sure it is, but it does mean that people like me like to stake out our corners. The tone, style, subjects and presenters evolve slowly in what is a very conservative medium.

        We are not privvy to these decision making processes, but as Curly alluded to above, being a presenter is a trade and a craft, to be learnt and practiced. It certainly happens at a further granular level within science programming. All of us presenters repeatedly receive disgruntlement that a) we have not represented their field correctly, and b) there are better experts in that field who could do a better job.

        Of course Brian Cox got the worst brunt of this recently with Wonders of LIfe (which I – a biology/genetics background, with expertise on the origin of life and evolution – loved): how can a physicist present a programme about biology??! Compeletly ignoring the fact that it was biology from a physicists point of view. And similarly, I got ‘how can this geneticist know anything about a 17th century microscope when he hasn’t published on it??!’ It’s difficult to know how to respond to that, not least because the process from concept to screen is tortuous and torturous.

        Becky: in my albeit limited experience, I have never heard a consultant complain that something was actually factually wrong in a programme I have been involved with. Factual errors shoud be unaccaptable, but sometimes views are nuanced, and heaven forfend, academics, never ever disagree about anything do they?

  10. Curly

    I agree that historians should front science programmes, there is absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t, and I think you’re right to press for this. Execs and commissioners will only change their habits when there is pressure.

    “I don’t think anyone commenting here is quite this naive about the production process – most of the historians I see here have participated in radio and TV productions and are involved with the media on a regular basis, so let’s not start with ‘you don’t know how TV works!’ as a line to dismiss concerns.”

    But I would disagree with this. Being a contributor or adviser on a programme is a very different experience to presenting programmes regularly, where you see the whole production process from commissioning to editing, rather than the very small section that contributors are party to.

    That would be like saying that a science producer knows all about the process of publishing academic papers, because they report on the results. You could equally say to me ‘you don’t know how academia works’ and I would agree, I don’t. Just as we couldn’t possibly fully understand your world unless we were part of the whole process, often you don’t completely understand ours.

    I think we need to accept each other’s expertise and work together rather than fighting about who knows the most about their other’s job!

  11. It’s strange that this problem—if it is a problem—doesn’t tend to occur as much with other branches of history on television. Yes, you do get the occasional non-professional like Andrew Marr and David Dimbleby (both of whom have made entertaining programmes), but most non-science history programmes seem to be presented by historians. Well, the (BBC) ones I watch, at least. I have to say, there’s some right old dross on some of the satellite channels.

    To be honest, I’m not too bothered who presents history of science programmes, so long as they’re reasonably accurate and entertaining, and have the potential to kindle/feed an interest in history and/or science. TV programmes are never going to be as nuanced as a good book on the subject. If the programmes result in some people reading up more on the subjects covered, they’ve done a good job.

    A far bigger concern to me is that the more serious history TV programmes all seem to sidelined on BBC4, as if they don’t belong on the ‘mainstream’ channels.

    • I’d love to know if this debate takes place in other historical fields. I definitely see complaints of non experts (e.g. Marr et al) making the programmes, or people presenting beyond their own expertise, but there does seem to be something different about the history of science debates’

      For e.g. on twitter, the suggestion was made that historians of science should be paired with scientists to make history of science programmes; while this sounds reasonable on the surface, it does rather seem to demonstrate a horrible limitation to the expertise of histsci professionals! I wonder if we’d insist that art historians had to present with a practicing artist, political historians with an MP, religious historians with a vicar, etc…

      • Perhaps we should just have anonymous voice-overs. You don’t actually need presenters. Horizon was (with one or two honourable exceptions) a much better science programme before they started putting presenters in front of the camera.

  12. pingu

    There’s also the issue of producers pushing experts either to the edge of or outside their actual areas of expertise in order to get the story that they want (in some cases, instead of the story that is there). I’m recording a bit for radio show as an ‘expert’ on a particular figure from science history who has often been portrayed in a biased manner, even in biographies. I’ve read a fair amount of primary documentation, and I suppose I’m as close to an expert as is available round here.

    However, I was sent a script by the producer which not only was factually inaccurate (especially the bits drawn from biographies), it also put words in my mouth that I was deeply uncomfortable with, extrapolating more from the evidence than is possible. I spent a full day rewriting it, removing the stuff I wasn’t happy about, and focusing on direct quotes from primary documents wherever I could. Even now, I’m disturbed that I’m the only expert, and that my words will make up quite a lot of the program.

    Had I known this at the outset, I would have demurred as not expert enough, but I thought I was just doing a generalised “Yeah, X is cool, did a few things, made a huge leap forward in the field” piece, which I am happy to do. I feel I can’t back out now, though, because without me they literally have no program. I will do my very best to be as accurate as I can, but I’m terrified of making a mistake and doing myself and my subject a disservice. I have been incredibly anxious about this and have genuinely lost sleep. But at this point I’m not sure what else I can do but my best, and keep my fingers crossed.

    So whilst some experts might be happy to overreach, some of us do the best we can when we unexpectedly find ourselves in out of our depth.

  13. No useful discourse has ever succeeded the phrase “I’ve never seen this programme but…”.

    • Thony C

      “I’ve never seen this programme but…”. Did you fall asleep after reading those six words? If you had bothered to read further before making your asinine comment you would have discovered that in the context of the article it is a perfectly valid lead in.

  14. A few points from a fairly neutral observer (history graduate, archives MA student, interested in both science and history of science)

    “I must admit that I’ve never seen this programme…” You almost lost me completely there, as it doesn’t seem a great way to start an argument. The second series of Science Club is mid-broadcast and on iplayer. Why not watch an episode? The animation is from the first series and it is, I think, arguable, that the second series *may* have seen some attempts to address issues raised at the time of the first. Ironically, they seem mainly to have done this by making it more of a pure science magazine show, focused very largely on current issues and not getting into history of science so much.

    Dara O Briain may be a comedian, but he’s also a UCD graduate in mathematics and a theoretical physicist. Yes, I know that this doesn’t make him either a scientist or a historian of science. But, for what it’s worth, I think he does an excellent job presenting the show. He’s an excellent broadcaster. The show has a lot of as-live (i.e. filmed in front of studio audience, but not broadcast live) segments, so it’s not one for inexperienced of faint-hearted. But he and the programme-makers also pitch it at a slightly higher level than many broadcasters would – assumptions are made about what the informed layman would already know about. This puts it about right for me.

    As for the animated potted histories, this is something they’ve done away with in the second series. I was never over-fond of them. But, the question does arise, given the brief of writing a 4 minute script covering the history of physics, how would you have gone about placing ‘the practice of science into its social, economic and political contexts’ and still covering the ground?

    More broadly, I have to say honestly – as I did at Christmas over the Cox/Ince editorial exchanges – that as someone just interested in both science and history of science but with no professional expertise in either (or in broadcasting) I find these exchanges pretty unedifying. While I fully understand and respect the position that you’re putting, to an outsider it can come across as pernickety and unrealistic, and that you’re not giving credit where it’s due. As I say, this is my honest layman’s perspective.

    It just feels to me that, if you genuinely want things to change, this is not necessarily the right way of going about it.

  15. Sorry, that should have read: “Dara O Briain may be a comedian, but he’s also a UCD graduate in mathematics and theoretical physics”.

    • Thony C

      That may be the case and I’ll have to take your word for it. However if it is the case then it makes the totally crass errors in THe Story of Physics animation even less excusable.

      • My thoughts exactly. He is a UCD graduate as james said. And if “he and the programme-makers also pitch it at a slightly higher level than many broadcasters would” then might we not expect even fewer errors than other popular science programs?

        I baited Dara with this on Twitter — and he replied!

        Sorry, but pointing out that a 4 min, light-hearted animation, out of context, didn’t cover all of Hist of Science? Bravo, Genius!
        It just read as sneering and superior. Pretty low fruit he’s picking to pat himself on the back so much….

        I countered:

        It shouldn’t take a genius to realise that “light-hearted” is not an excuse for getting facts wrong & perpetuating urban myths
        Well, there’s professional pride at stake! Maybe science historians have a fookin’ sack for those who make avoidable errors… 😮

        (The sack is a reference to one of his stand up routines.)


      • Just thinking on this more…

        Where did you find it stated that Dara O’Briain wrote the script for this animation as well as narrating it? It doesn’t state that on the link you gave and I haven’t been able to find any evidence for that elsewhere. A blog entry on the website of the animation company ( suggests that the ‘sciencey talent’ was Naomi Law (who, IMDB tells me, was the assistant producer on the programme). Perhaps she wrote it, or at least coordinated it.

        In fact, the more I think about, it seems extremely unlikely to me that he did write it. There were six of these four minute animations = 24 minutes of script. Dara O’Briain is on-screen “talent” whose billable rate is, I imagine, reasonably high. I can’t really imagine they would spend money getting him to research write these.

        It couldn’t be that, in ascribing it to him, you’ve made a crass error could it? That really would be unforgiveable. (joke!)

        Moreover, assuming he didn’t write it, I would imagine he had very little – if any – chance, to influence the script. Animation takes time, and the script will have been the first thing to be agreed, so that the art can reflect the words. I may be completely wrong, but the neutral pacing of Dara O’Briain’s delivery strongly suggests to me that he was brought into the process fairly late in the day to read a pre-existing script in time with a completed animation.

        If that’s the case, your argument about the problem him, as the presenter and narrator, being a) a comedian, b) a science graduate and c) not a historian of science, doesn’t seem to hold a huge amount of water.

        Am I over-analysing the detail on this?

        Perhaps yes, but in this context I think that’s entirely fair.

        Your argument, if I’ve understood it, is that over-simplification, generalisation and error is not forgiveable in this type of programme. Well then, I think I have a right to hold you to your own standards!

        Should the production team have involved a historian of science in the scriptwriting for these animations? Yes, probably. It might have helped them avoid the errors you noted. But, I do refer you back to my question in my earlier post: tasked with scripting a four minute animation on the history of physics, how would you do in a way that got all the nuance you wanted *and* was amenable to a light-hearted, whimsical animation on a TV magazine science programme?

        Is it fair to call the whole animation ‘abysmally bad’ because it makes some errors? Arguable. It’s interesting that, in searching around to try to find the writing credit for the animation, I find many, many people praising it highly.

        And is it fair to use your issues with the animation as a peg for your broader issues with history of science in broadcast media? I’d argue not because, so far as I can tell, the presenter/narrator did not have any role in scripting it and likely as not did not have any chance to influence the script.

        As I said before, Dara O’Briain does a very good job at compering a show filmed ‘as live’ in front of a studio audience. I have, as it happens, tweeted him and the programme to suggest that, assuming a third series is commissioned, they bring a historian of science in to do a 5 minute segment on each programme. So, it’s not that I disagree with you entirely, I just think that – somewhat ironically! – your argument is lacking a bit of nuance.

      • thonyc


        I took the information that Dara Ó Briain wrote the text of the animation from the website where I first encountered the animation, not the one I linked to. You are probably right that it is incorrect and I have thus modified my post.

        The animation does not “make some errors”, the sections on Galileo and Newton are embarrassing and cringeworthy and to put it mildly are total crap. The section on Maxwell and the lead into Einstein are mostly crap. Taken as a whole it is as I said, viewed from the history of science standpoint, abysmal.

        It is almost certainly impossible to do justice to the history of physics in a four minute animation so the old entertainment industry adage should be applied; if you can’t do something well don’t do it at all!. And for all the people accusing me of ignorance in that field I have literally decades of experience in the entertainment industry and the problems involved in productions of many different types. I also earn part of my living doing public popular history of science lectures and doing entertainment has never been an excuse for getting the facts wrong.

        On the reactions in the Internet to the animation (which as I have already discussed on Twitter with Meg who does the excellent True Anomalies animations is as an animation excellent, it’s just the script that stinks!) it is exactly because many, many ignorant people were praising it that led me to criticise the abysmal content.

        And is it fair to use your issues with the animation as a peg for your broader issues with history of science in broadcast media?

        If you actually read my post you will note that I actually reference five different examples of history of science broadcasting and you can find other examples that I have criticised, sometimes positively sometimes negatively, in other posts on this blog so to insinuate that I do so purely on the basis of this one animation is bizarre to say the least.

  16. As someone who has assisted on the fringes of this process the discussion above has been fascinating and enlightening. I’ve helped facilitate film crews working on location in which the producer has clearly lead the way in terms of the intellectual content, telling the presenter “I want you to talk about this, this, and this, in order to show x, y, z.” As well as once watching a presenter taking a moment to rearrange what they were attempting to say on film for the umpteenth take, and thereby clearly showing that what they were presenting wasn’t just their own words, but their own scholarly ideas on the subject. (Incidentally, the presenters in my two examples here were two different academics, but the producer was the same person on each). I took away from each of these two instances that the whole programme-making process was very much a collaborative process, and that, on some occasions, the TV media side might lead yet on others the presenter/expert would lead – but, ultimately, on these two ocassions they both struck a balance which seemed to work well.

    I think personalities also play a huge part in how information is conveyed (as much as how it is received by us as the audience), hence not everyone will agree on the success or otherwise of the outcome. Certainly, if facts are presented incorrectly then we can take issue with the production, but if the style of presentation (or the background of the presenter/entertainer) is our primary bugbear – well, I suppose, the simple answer is just it’s a matter of “horses for courses.” In that sense, though, I think variety is a good thing, I’d far rather there be a range of broadcasting styles looking at academic subjects rather than everything conforming to a straight-jacketed uniformity of style. That way we have a choice, and so, happily, we can take our pick.

  17. Thony C

    I have become somewhat notorious in the Internet history of science community for regularly kicking the hornets nest when some piece of history of science inanity annoys me. This time it would appear that I have succeeded in provoking a very interesting and highly stimulating discussion not only here but also on twitter.

    I would like to thank all of those of you who have expressed their thoughts so openly and largely without rancour on this complex subject and for honouring my humble blog with your presence.

    It would appear that being provocative can sometimes also be productive.

    • Hmm, WordPress doesn’t want to let me reply directly to your comment, so I’m having to reply down here.

      “If you actually read my post…”

      I would’ve thought it was pretty obvious that I had read your post, so there’s no need to get snide. I’ve maintained good-humoured politeness throughout this discussion so far, what was the purpose of taking that tone?

      To quote the great Toby Ziegler: “I’m disagreeing with you. That doesn’t mean I’m not listening to you or understanding what you’re saying – I’m doing all three at the same time.”

      “…so to insinuate that I do so purely on the basis of this one animation is bizarre to say the least.”

      Err, but that’s not actually what I said is it?

      I said that since your argument was that historians of science should present history of science to ensure that the details were got right, and you had used the contrasting examples of Jardine and O’Briain to make your case. I suggested that since O’Briain hadn’t written the script, and probably had had little/no chance to influence it, it wasn’t really a representative case for the argument you are advancing.

      I have to say that the tone you are now taking is precisely why I find these discussions depressing. I was trying to come at this perspective which I think is relevant: I’m an engaged, intelligent layman. Not trained in either science or history of science, but interested in both. I watch a lot of both on TV, listen to it on radio and podcasts, and read a fair bit. I have attended an HoS lecture at the Royal Society and volunteered in the archive there.

      No, I’m confronted with a lack of real engagement with my argument, just a suggestion that I didn’t read yours properly.

      All you’ve done is made me less willing to engage in discussion the next time it comes up.

      Incidentally, despite not being qualified, I already knew about pretty much all the principal errors you identified in the animation. Who’d have imagined that?

  18. Ian Paul Wragg

    Yep, enjoyed it. It was an interesting discussion.

  19. Adam Rutherford

    I am, I must confess, slightly bothered by the use of two examples to cast opinions about a whole profession, which in my experience is filled with skilful hardworking producers who strive to avoid errors and craft great programming, whilst refusing to acknowledge programmes that counter your arguments, and simultaneously citing anonymous unidentified catastrophes. As I said, I have no recognition of the flat denial of factual correction by producers, nor of stubborn refusal to adjust narratives. Every time I’ve filmed I have had robust healthy arguments about content, facts and structure, with mutually happy results.

    Alas I cannot engage further today, because I am on a shoot. About a field I have never worked in. Laden with history. Lets see how it comes out.

    • In reply to Adam: – I’m not sure if the two examples you are referring to are mine or those of the original blog post? But just to clarify, I was mightily impressed with both the presenters and the producer on each of the two occasions I mentioned. And I agree with you completely, ‘skilful hardworking’ professionalism has always been my experience of watching such crews working together and then watching the resulting broadcasts.


  20. Jeb

    “skilful hardworking’ professionalism”
    My impression is most people think it is rather easy and everyone of course is ready to give critical advice on how you could do better.

    Professionalism means you have to take all the hits on board get past the sting and see if you should or can adapt but you still have to reflect all perspectives those of comedians, scientists and even h.o.s historians, so it is a thankless task and people should be going away unhappy some of the time.

    T.V. is sometimes going to run with an accurate depiction of etymology sometimes a giant sized spider sucking out someones brains and then an interview with the believer in giant sized spiders.

    But it also does this

    “Two of our curators, one conservator and several British Library manuscripts feature in episode one of the new series, to be broadcast tonight on BBC Four (21.00–22.00). It’s always a pleasure to work with Michael Wood, who is a trained Anglo-Saxonist, and we look forward (like everyone else!) to watching his new programme, entitled “Alfred of Wessex”

    Meanwhile, you might like to know that can see the whole of King Alfred’s will on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site … and you can read more about it here.”

    The opportunities to engage and inform and take people directly to the sources in other formats are breathtaking.

    If H.O.S is in any way out of the loop I take it other institutions must be as well and semi-detached and fragmented is not the way to go.

  21. Pingback: Shame really… but this myth needs to die | Unsettled Christianity

  22. Jeb

    “We wanted to start to tell a story that would take a long time to tell. We were creating a sophisticated, multi-layered story with complex characters who would reveal themselves over time and relationships that would take space to play out…… We have learned the lesson that the music industry didn’t learn: give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in….There has been this myth of ‘nobody knows anything’, that making a good programme is a crapshoot…..But frankly, that’s just BS. We do know how this works and it’s always been about empowering artists. It’s always about total abandon.”

  23. Pingback: I’ve got your missing links (24 August 2013) – Phenomena

  24. Michael Weiss

    You asked how one could do 4 minute animation on the history of physics, with nuance, and getting the details right.

    Take a look at Admittedly the animations don’t cover the whole history of physics, but they show what is possible in this medium.

  25. Pingback: Behind the Scenes: The Seven Ages of Science an Interview with Lisa Jardine. | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  26. Jeb

    “Technology affects how we do pretty much anything, including the age-old craft of storytelling. Now there are more choices of what we can read, watch, listen to and play with….
    Storytelling once was a narrow experience. The storyteller told; the listener listened…..
    What would have been an 18,000-word story was turned into a streamlined storytelling experience. The text version of the story is enhanced by harrowing first-person accounts, interactive graphics that illuminated the scientific perspectives of the story and photos and videos that brought the experience together into a project that reached 3.5 million viewers in the first six days of publication…….

    The craft of storytelling is entering a brave new phase.

  27. Jeb

    p.s I think this is a very difficult argument to hit correctly. It requires a lot more debate and thought. You have the bullets I think the gun got fired to fast.

  28. Sorry I’m a bit late joining in. I’d just like to add my agreement to many of the comments here. I think it all comes down to the need to respect the expertise of others, and to direct constructive and specific criticism appropriately. We may even celebrate the fact that there are now so many audiences for history of science that not all programmes made are going to be to everyone’s taste.

    More specifically, I agree with the various comments above who have suggested that programme making is complex, requiring hardwork and expertise (in programme making), but that producers are generally open to suggestions & do not set out to broadcast factually inaccurate material. So for example, just saying that condensing an idea to 5 mins is impossible, without offering an alternative (besides not doing it), would not I think be a constructive approach. It would not respect the aims and skills of the programme maker, nor would it offer them anyway to make their programme more factually accurate.

    Just as an aside, it seems to me there are overlaps here with debates going on at the history of science conference in Manchester this summer on whether or not there should be more science in current history of science writing. Is this part of the problem I wonder? That scientist want/ expect something different from history of science than historians? That different approaches might be needed to take history of science into debates and narratives within those fields?

  29. Jeb

    “It would not respect the aims and skills of the programme maker…”

    The short animation that has drawn so much fire demonstrates how creative people work. On the hoof, by trail and error. Dara Ó Briain is a comedian, his voice is not trained and he has been allowed to do something very demanding and expand his expertise and grow in confidence.

    Its rather clear that 6 months to a year down the line he will be able to do it like a pro, he is clearly aware of the issues he has with projection and deals with them effectively although he is still having to think hard and it is not yet effortless.

    The B.B.C could just have got a professional actor who specializes in such things. It did not and instead encouraged and allowed someone the opportunity to grow creatively and increase in confidence in a new role.

    If it just left it to the usual suspects to do such things it would be pretty dull, conservative and somewhat hierarchical and not encouraging a diverse wide range of creative talent.

  30. Jeb

    That was not an attempt at snark. I can remember the day when ‘expert opinion’ amongst theatrical professionals was that you could not speak in a Scots or Irish accent and everything had to be done in a “neutral voice” or r.p.

    The expert consensus was that this was the only way to speak and anything else was unthinkable.

    Experts are just as capable of taking nonsense as anyone else at times and only listening to in-group opinion and mistaking it for knowledge.

  31. Pingback: Giants’ Shoulders #63: Live from Deptford | Halley's Log

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s