TELEVISION / Less of a Big Bang, more of a whimper

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The Independent Culture
BIG SCIENCE (BBC 2), a new magazine programme, tackles some of the more complex issues of science with pin-up presenters, some jokey graphics and, God help us, two 'comedy writers'. The result is profoundly irritating, as if Holiday had merged with Horizon after some B-movie laboratory accident. Or maybe it was Watchdog that wandered into the Matter Particle Accelerator when the mad scientist's back was turned. 'So where does that leave the public?' said David Malone urgently towards the end of the first item, which covered doubts about the Big Bang theory. It was as though physicists had been leaving the sell-by date off their theories. You half expected a vox-pop in a shopping centre - 'I think it's shocking, I do. One moment we're told that the universe is expanding and that the Hubble Constant is accurate, the next minute you hear that linked stars display entirely different red shifts. I mean, I have to drive to Bournemouth on Saturday.'

For all I know, Malone is on the brink of winning a Nobel Prize for his work in the Unified Field Theory but it doesn't look like it. His manner is smoothly professional, all practised hand-gestures and fake hesitations (one excruciating little turn of the head is going to take pride of place in my Museum of Fake Moments). He also seems to believe, in common with the other presenters, that pointing at the camera is a magical substitute for informed passion. That nice David Attenborough never points, I found myself thinking irritably.

For the most part, all this youth-club energy is just a display of bad faith. At their best, BBC programmes recognise that 'to entertain' and 'to educate' can be tautologous terms, not polar opposites. And, to be fair, all the items in Big Science were well-chosen. It would be a brave scheduler who advertised a programme about the philosophy of science, but behind the obscuring vaudeville that's essentially what this was - an attempt to tackle some conceptual problems in science without using words like 'paradigm shift'.

Elsewhere though the condescending simplification is actively misleading. I refuse to believe that a Monty Python hand, jabbing around a picture of a distant star-cluster, will persuade a single recalcitrant viewer to stick with the argument longer than a simple arrow. Good graphics subtract noise from the message but most of the frilly things used here added it. The programme twitches nervously throughout, like someone who fears he's a nerd and that if he doesn't tell jokes, no one will like him. In the process, accuracy goes by the board. The final item, about the underlying complexity of an apparently instinctive task, such as catching a cricket ball, was a case in point.

An ingenious mathematician has worked out that the instinctive movements of the body in catching match up to a second order differential equation with remarkable accuracy. 'It's an equation A- level students struggle with, but a six-year- old apparently uses without thinking,' said the voice-over. But the Ripley's Believe It Or Not suggestion that the brain 'does' the equation before you can catch a ball makes no more sense than saying that water swirling down a plughole 'does' complicated sums before it decides which way it's going to swirl. The equation is a description, not a set of instructions. If Big Science can't make important distinctions like that clear, perhaps they should stop fooling around.

Clive Anderson's trip from Hong Kong to Ulan Bator for Great Railway Journeys, an unpretentious combination of stunning landscapes and mild, dry jokiness, mended my temper. I don't think Anderson should become a travel writer (Peking is a 'fascinating mixture of old and new') but he's witty on the run and his talent for one-sided conversations proved invaluable. The most joyous moment (write to Points of View and ask them to repeat it) was an impromptu mass-singing of 'Edelweiss' by Chinese children, led by Shanghai's answer to George Burns.