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.

News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
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.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'