why one makes me smile, and the other makes me cringe

As most of you know, I’ve been smitten with Professor Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Solar System. This is hardly a surprise for those who know me (all of you I presume) – Brian Cox is a great communicator, unashamedly passionate about science and the physical world, the show is about some of my favourite things in life and the photography is spot on from top to bottom. So of course I like it. But more than liking it (loving it!), I feel the need to point out just how much credit Brian Cox deserves for this, and just how many miles away this show is from anything else on TV right now.

This became even more desperately apparent after watching Horizon’s take on Cosmology last night. I’ve learnt to lower my expectations on Horizon shows, but I hadn’t seen an episode for a while. Cosmology is one of my favourite things in life (also my job – aren’t I lucky?), a lot of people I respect were on this show, and the BBC does have a tendency for good photography so of course I was going to like it. Right? Wrong.

There’s a staggering difference between the two shows. Brian Cox’s Wonders sets out to teach, but most importantly, to simultaneously awe. There’s enormous pedagogical value in this show, and this is done brilliantly by always keeping a foothold on familiar ground (like a solar eclipse, or a tornado), taking people from what they know to what they don’t. Brian Cox never trivialises the subject, but never rationalises it to death either. There’s a very fine balance here, which not many people can get right. The fact that he mostly does is probably the main reason I’m so smitten with this man. Carl Sagan got it, David Attenborough masters it, and Brian Cox may well be on his way up there – time will tell.

Now take Horizon’s Cosmology show. Admittedly, the goals are very different. The BBC describes the show as a ‘series exploring topical scientific issues and their effects for the future’ so it’s only natural that it focuses on controversy and discordancy within any given topic. But it offers almost no pedagogical insight into the matter, and any controversy is suddenly painfully out of context. Arguably they have a tougher task in hand, but that’s no excuse – if you can’t do it well, don’t bother.

The topic was Cosmology and how the Standard Model, even though the best we can do right now, may well be wrong. This is very true, and a topic very much worth doing a show about. But we were presented with a series of disjointed opinions by professional scientists, without any context or background. Having someone saying “I don’t like Dark Energy” is only OK if you understand why and, crucially, if you understand that it doesn’t bloody matter whether scientists like it or not when it comes to moving the subject forward. Yes, we’re human and we all have our preferences on how the field will unroll within our lifetime, and that’s OK – but that doesn’t shape the science of the future. Not as a whole, if only because if you don’t like it someone else will. Peer review, thorough observations and repeatability – it works! And the public must understand that if it’s to trust the scientist once more.

The fact that the show spent the last 10 minutes on Dark Flow (an observation that goes against the Standard Model, but as of yet not reproduced nor validated) just brought home the fact that this show was not about teaching, nor informing, nor awing. It felt like it was about making an impression, but without much consideration for exactly what. I fear it widened the gap between the public and the scientist, rather than making people look forward to the next decade when the Standard Model will be put to some serious testing, certainly the most stringent tests yet. Can we all say ‘missed opportunity’?

It’s upsetting I spent more time bashing Horizon than praising Wonders, so let me finish on a high. Wonders has only aired 2 episodes, but I haven’t looked forward to a science TV show this much since Planet Earth. Ultimately, you get to the end of an episode feeling richer, and more connected to this wonderful world around you. And personally, I can’t think of a better use of one hour of TV airtime.

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