RADIO / Relative theory of humour: Robert Hanks on popular approaches to science and the humanities

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The Independent Culture
What is the point of National Science Week? More importantly, what does Radio 1 think is the point of National Science Week? Even more importantly, what does Steve Wright think is the point of National Science Week?

Yesterday on Steve Wright in the Morning, Steve launched the station's contribution to better public understanding of scientific issues. Among the scientific features is a series of Amazing Facts (hear Steve's Morning Posse go 'Whooo]') - for instance, did you know that one in four people suffers from back pain? You could have knocked me down with a feather when they came out with that one. The show also featured Suzanne Charlton forecasting the weather - on Venus]

There was also the first in a series of one-minute Lives of the Great Scientists: Einstein, 'The brainiest brain this century'. This included the following summary of the theory of relativity: 'If you go fast, time slows down, but you don't notice because time itself has slowed. Space itself shrinks, which you also don't notice - speed is miles per hour, distance for time, so it all works out, which is another way of saying everything is not what it seems, it's all relative, that's why I call it Relativity, and it's true, and I never vear (sic) socks.'

These one-minute lives are produced by Matt Thompson, who was responsible for Brian Magee's Radio 3 series What's the Big Idea?, so I'm prepared to take the scientific accuracy on trust. But gabbled in a Kenny Everett German accent, it's hard to see that this, or any of the other scientific items, is actually going to teach anybody anything or arouse anybody's interest in science. It does, however, make you think that it might be fun to perform experiments on Steve Wright. It isn't just his fault, though; Simon Mayo is marking the week by asking listeners to call in if they've ever seen a UFO, which isn't precisely central to the great enterprise of human knowledge.

On Start the Week (Radio 4, Monday), Melvyn Bragg and a group of scientists were rehashing the Two Cultures debate - doing a Snow job, so to speak. But listening to the tenor of Radio 1's science coverage, you wonder if the real problem this country faces is not the division between arts and sciences so much as excessive wackiness. That's not to say that you shouldn't make jokes about serious subjects; the problem is not so much jokes as jokiness - a national tendency to assume that saying something in a humorous way makes it automatically funny.

The Two Cultures don't come into it: you can see it happen with radio's treatment of the humanities, too. History, for example, comes in for its share of frivolity. In Looking Forward to the Past (Radio 4, Thursday), Paul Boateng MP asks a group of celebrities (Libby Purves, Rabbi Lionel Blue - high-calibre people) to offer personal views of bits of history: given a choice between Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan which would you take? It's almost a panel-game, except that nobody is awarded any points; and since none of the people involved is a historian, the quality and accuracy of the insights it throws up are hugely variable.

Hindsight (Radio 4, Friday) is more informative, and far more authoritative: every week, Christopher Andrew talks to historians about their specialities. Sometimes it offers riveting details - last week, there was an interesting comparison between the violent iconoclasm of 16th-century Europe and the painstaking way that British reformers removed statues and packed them away in case they needed them later.

On the other hand, this is more or less all it does do. In the end, it reduces to a list of Amazing Facts from History - In the 16th century, people who didn't go to church were punished by being banned from going to church] Frederick the Great used to warm up his opera house by marching soldiers into it] Paganini had syphilis] Still, at least you don't have a posse going 'Whooo]' the whole time; so the humanities are still coming out on top.