The Weekend's Viewing: Brian Cox's Night with the Stars, Sun, BBC2
James May's Man Lab, Sun, BBC2
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014.
Monday 19 December 2011
First, Brian Cox made science TV-friendly.
There's even talk that he made it sexy. Now, he's making it starry. But does it render an hour-long explanation of quantum physics any more comprehensible to the average viewer if it takes place before a galaxy of stars? The answer is no, but the shiny-eyed, perpetually smiling professor certainly tried his damndest to make physics more accessible with comments like, "If I were a nucleus perched on the Cliffs of Dover..." and "I think of the universe as a vast box of atoms" (perhaps a little too reminiscent of Forrest Gump's "Life is like a box of chocolates").
The show was staged as a lecture at the Royal Institution of Great Britain before a guest audience, at the start of which Cox pledged to bring quantum physics home to all of us. His method was Blue Peter-style science involving Sarah Millican pouring some sand over a double-slitted board, Simon Pegg and Jim Al-Khalili wibbling a piece of rope, Jonathan Ross doing sums on the blackboard and looking as if he were in school detention, and James May singeing his hand when Cox sprayed hydrogen gas into soap-suds. Did this "science made fun" unravel the mysteries of quantum physics for the starry audience? Not if the camera-panning was anything to go by: they looked back with flummoxed faces. No one wanted to say it until Ross blurted it out on stage: "I'm so out of my depth here. It's the worst thing that has happened to me as an adult."
Yet Brian Cox's Night with the Stars was not a bad hour's TV. There was something very refreshing in the simple lecture format, harking back to the days of Tomorrow's World, in which a TV audience has to be consistently attentive. And there were, within the confusion, epiphanic moments. Cox opened the lecture by bringing out a three-billion-year-old diamond and talking about how it was both the hardest thing in the world but also ethereal enough to filter light. As he talked about atoms, protons, electrons (lighting up brain cells that might not have been exercised since GCSE physics), he spoke of the contradictory nature of matter, which is "empty yet solid". Physics began to sound first like metaphysics ("Particles that make this diamond are in communication with every one of you and with everything in the universe") and then, like Buddhism ("When I heat this diamond up, all the atoms in the universe change their energy levels... Everything is connected to everything else"). These wondrous statements made quantum physics seem suddenly clear cut, until it got complicated again. Yet the biggest scientific conundrum for me remained how Cox's ability to talk and smile at the same time, for a full-hour, actually made my face ache.
If silly science is more your thing, and you happen to be a middle-life, middle-class "lad" in the same vein as James May, you might have preferred being in his Man Lab before Cox's head-spinner. Apparently filmed in August (before the singed hand), May and his gang prepared for yuletide, man-style, with a tool kit wrapped around their thickening hips. So a tree was felled explosively, and baubles were fired ballistically on to its branches. There was turkey-making for men, and a host of other festive preparations that incorporated loud, explosive sounds. But the real "tool kit" obsession of the hour was trying to make it snow. This was first attempted in the real world as May's sidekick, Oz Clarke, was dispatched on a small airplane and filmed as he vainly tried to spray dry ice on to a cloud. No luck, but they did succeed in having a white Christmas back at the man lab (with the help of a lot of hydrogen canisters).
It was men behaving badly in woolly jumpers, with May's usual blend of popular science, the odd good tip and a lot of silliness that makes for easy, unchallenging viewing. Having said that, I actually learned something: a six-kilo turkey should be cooked on gas mark five for three and a half hours. Thanks, guys.
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