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.