Staying in: Trousers ancient and modern

Adam Hart-Davis's new series tramples all over the tweedy version of history

In recent years, historical and scientific documentaries have been increasingly lofty affairs, inhabited by desiccated academics strolling photogenically across hillsides and spouting revisionist monologues. Thank heavens, then, for Adam Hart-Davis (second right), television's boffin du jour, who demonstrates that history and science needn't be so prescriptive. In his hands, complex theories become simple and ancient civilisations are instantly exciting. His enthusiastic delivery has more in common with Blue Peter than QED.

What the Ancients Did for Us sees the presenter expanding upon his previous series, What the Romans... and What the Victorians Did for Us, and uncovering the most influential developments of past cultures. In future episodes, Hart-Davis will find out how the Egyptians aligned the Pyramids, how the Chinese were the first to develop paper money, and how the ancient Greeks measured the Earth's circumference and created the world's first robots and computers.

This week, he concentrates on the achievements of the Islamic world. By the 8th century, the Islamic empire had stretched east from Spain to what is now Pakistan, effectively becoming a medieval superpower. The ideas and the inventions of the Muslims were staggeringly ahead of their time: encompassing astronomy, art, architecture, agriculture and medicine, they have had a lasting effect on the world we live in today.

Hart-Davis shows us how the early Muslims learnt to measure the tilt of the Earth in relation to the Sun, came to understand the fundamentals of light - leading to the invention of the camera obscura - and designed the first torpedo. Muslim creativity also led to the invention of a unique instrument, the astrolabe, which could find the direction of Mecca, tell the time and, with the help of the stars, guide travellers across deserts and oceans. They also pursued the cause of knowledge, translating and preserving the works of the ancients as well as building the world's largest libraries, known as "houses of wisdom".

Where you might find the likes of Simon Schama and David Starkey in regulation tweed, Hart-Davis gads about in a pair of bright orange shorts, spluttering with delight at his latest scientific wheeze. In What the Romans Did for Us, he attempted to cross a river on 150 balloons. Here, he improvises his own camera obscura using a garden shed, explains the mechanics of the inventor Al-Jazari's crank-connecting rod (a suction pump) by trying to shoot a stream of water across a moat, grinds his own corn, takes a class in ceramics, and whips up a pan of soap using cooking oil, sodium hydroxide and a pinch of salt.

Madcap as Hart-Davis's methods are, he transforms ancient activities into something weird, wonderful and, crucially, comprehensible. This is the man who, in a series of TV ads, even managed to make filling in a tax return sound fun. If he can't sell it, no one can.

`What the Ancients Did for Us' is on Wed at 8pm on BBC2

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