It Is Rocket Science, Radio 4, Wednesday
Calibrated Conundrums, Radio 4, Tuesday
How Bowie missed the future party
Sunday 13 March 2011
Popular science has never been more popular, I'm happy to observe.
With Professor Cox on the box leading the way and Marcus du Sautoy, holder of the Chair of Public Understanding of Science, in the vanguard, the boffins are filling the spiritual void left when we realised we were being pumped full of guff. I place my faith in physics, not Ol' Big Beard upstairs. I believe that if we stick around for long enough, science will tell us everything there is to know.
And it would be nice if Radio 4 was still around to guide us through it. In Our Time has reached 500 editions (the age of the universe, randomness in science and Thomas Edison have been recent topics), and Cox and du Sautoy have both done their bit – the latter's A Brief History of Mathematics was one of the best things on the radio last year, while the former's Infinite Monkey Cage, returning in May, is science with a smile – and quite a few guffaws.
Helen Keen joins their ranks with It Is Rocket Science, the first of a three-parter based on her Edinburgh Fringe show. Her history of rockets kicked off with the pioneers: Tsiolkovsky, who dreamed in 1903 of a multi-stage rocket powered by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen ..."and people say David Bowie was ahead of his time". And Oberth, whose work in the 1930s incited a surge of interest in space travel. "Rockets really started taking off," as Keen put it.
In truth, it felt as if she was trying too hard; fewer gags and more info would have been good. And with its Horrible Histories feel, wouldn't it be ideal for children, rather than going out at 11pm?
Having set us right on punctuation, in Calibrated Conundrums Lynne Eats, Shoots and Leaves Truss gets stuck into jargon. She's got a lovely, everywoman style, ideal for teasing out the pratfalls of science lingo. We discovered why advertisers prefer "clinically proven" to "scientifically proven" (images of pristine white coats vs dusty labs), and why "heat" isn't what you think it is. She ended with Lucretius, who recommended the "honeyed cup" of poetry to aid the digestion of knowledge. It's a message Radio 4 has learnt well, and we're better off for it.
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