Last Night's Television - The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, Five; Tony Robinson and the Blitz Witch, Channel 4

When everything clicks

Back in the mists of time,
The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures were a staple item in the BBC's seasonal package. More recently, these venerable public talks, which were launched by Michael Faraday in 1825, migrated to Channel 4. Of late, they have found a home on Five, which says quite a lot about contemporary public-service broadcasting, none of it nice.

The lectures serve the same purpose that they always did. The aim is to present complex scientific matters to children, in a way that will grip, entertain and engage them. This year, it was the turn of Professor Christopher Bishop, who works for Microsoft in Cambridge. He lectured on "The Quest for the Ultimate Computer", and explained the process of assembling one so clearly that I for one began to feel certain that I could knock a computer together in the potting shed, if only I could be bothered.

Professor Bishop worked hard at explaining why it was that computers had become so sophisticated, so quickly, while becoming cheaper all the time as well. He trotted though the discovery of semiconductors (the first, silver sulphide, in a suitable nod to history, was happened upon by Faraday), the invention of transistors, the happy birth of the integrated circuit, and the joyous news that the more transistors you could get onto a microprocessor, the faster and the cheaper they got.

Exponential growth, he explained, with the help of some mousetraps and some ping-pong balls, had got us from black-and-white Space Invaders to interactive Star Wars: the Force Unleashed in 30 years. And, of course, he gently added, it had got us a whole lot more, including a giant leap in health care. But all that endeavour was being defeated by the intense heat that the microprocessors were beginning to generate. In another couple of years, computers would have to stop getting faster, or they'll be generating the same heat density as the surface of the sun. This seemed like a familiar and depressing story, albeit in microcosm.

But the ebullient professor was undaunted. Wouldn't the rapt audience like to be involved in making computers out of carbon monotubes? Such a thing might soon be possible, and they could process 1,000 times faster than contemporary computers. Or out of DNA? The DNA in our own bodies, he confessed, held 10,000 times more data than that contained by all the computers in the world. Wouldn't it be great to have computers that powerful? Wouldn't it be fabulous if humans became so clever that they could invent themselves?

That would depend, of course, on what humans used the very clever computers to find out. Would it, for example, rescue us from the spectacle of watching Becky McCall, who was billed as a science journalist, completely failing to debunk the idea that ectoplasm existed, smelled a bit like semen, was excreted from the orifices of mediums, and arranged itself into spirits who chatted soothingly about how lovely the other side was?

McCall was playing the sceptic to Tony Robinson's "open-minded explorer of the unexplained", in Tony Robinson and the Blitz Witch. The Blitz Witch was Helen Duncan, a "celebrated" wartime medium who made her living from promising the families of dead servicemen that she could put them in touch, one last time. Such antics are deeply unpleasant, but it is still astonishing that the woman was tried at the Old Bailey in 1944, and became the last person (so far) to be jailed under the Witchcraft Act of 1735.

Duncan attracted the attention of MI5 when she conducted a seance in Portsmouth in December 1941, at which a sailor called Sid "appeared", announcing that he had died when the HMS Barham had been bombed by a German U-boat. Naturally, the news of the ship's loss, with more than 800 of its hands, went round like wildfire, even though the Admiralty had told the relatives of the dead that for reasons of national security, the loss of the Barham should be kept to themselves.

It took a long time before Becky the sceptic got around to revealing that letters had been sent to the bereaved on 6 December, before the seance. For quite a bit of the show, she flailed around, pretending that no member of the public could possibly have known about the sinking until it was announced in The Times in February, and elaborately discussing cheesecloth and suggestibility with other so-called scientists who really ought to know better.

Clearly, the authorities had charged Duncan with witchcraft because they couldn't afford to let her carry on paying people for information, in order that she could exploit other people's grief. No doubt they couldn't afford the bother of putting together a treason case against her either. I believe it's called rough justice.

My 11-year-old son was enthralled by the show, far more so than he had been by the revelatory lecture on computers. The latter may run on logic, but logic, bizarrely, has never been a match for human credulity. It's easy to make entertaining fiction. But it's entertaining fact that provides the public service of building people with a half-decent processing speed.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there