Science on screen: The Albert Einstein experience

Rob Newman's new comedy is a surreal salute to the history of science. What's so funny about that? Here, he explains all
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Science, wrote George Bernard Shaw, never solves one problem without creating 10 more. But in my new BBC4 series, The History of the World Backwards, I've decided to take a look at what would happen if science no longer solved any problems whatsoever. In the programmes, I've created a world in which all the great gifts that science has bestowed upon the world are disappearing. I look at what would happen if history, or progress, started to run backwards, and humankind faced a mighty new challenge: Technology Collapse.

What is Technology Collapse? It's best explained by the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics (well, this is how the Fourth Law works in the series, at least). The law holds that all inventions of the human brain are parked on the slope of time, with the handbrake off, and crumbling bricks under the wheels.

"Each day," says the fictional Albert Einstein (right) in one sketch, "I get an emergency call-out to a scene where a familiar piece of technology has begun to fail. I rush to Fleming's laboratory, where the last batch of penicillin has begun to go off, but can think of nothing to arrest the process, and must stare helplessly while it turns into live yogurt before my very eyes."

Finally, 500 years from now, Galileo and Kepler study antique technology – SatNav, electrocardiograms, hair tongs – trying to deduce what each was used for. They often have no clue, although Galileo is much praised for his paper On Suggested Applications of the Lean, Mean, Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine.

Here are some of the struggles into which Technology Collapse pitches scientists in the show. And before we start, no, I'm no primitivist yearning for an age without science and technology. For me, life without pile ointment and downloadable audiobooks doesn't bear thinking about.

The last phone call

It amuses me that, while science creates such sophisticated technologies, the way we use them is often incredibly inane. In one episode we witness Alexander Graham Bell's heroic efforts to fight Technology Collapse and keep telecommunications technology alive just long enough to demonstrate the world's last-ever premium-rate phone call to a salon of assembled dignitaries. "You're touching yourself where?" he shouts down the phone's speaking trumpet. "Between the legs, you say? I see. To what purpose?"

In another version of the same idea, a Lindisfarne monk recalls the "World's Last Ever Printed Page". "The loss of the printed page was a great blow to mankind," he laments. While Gutenberg and Caxton were failing to arrest the collapse of printing, there was much debate over the content of the Last Ever Printed Page. How do you end the greatest conversation humanity has ever known? "In the end it was decided," the monk tells a novice, "to run with a picture story." We cut to an etching of a Heat magazine-style graphic of Martin Luther climbing out of a carriage with an arrow pointing to his thong, which is showing as a "whale-tail" on his buttocks.

Both sketches are really about power. Whose power controls the uses to which these technologies are put? If the Alexander Graham Bell sketch is funny, it's because a famously independent, pioneering individual is here rendered powerless, a victim of a culture he did not create and cannot control. Instead, some invisible hand is controlling the use to which the last telecommunications are put.

The end of the industrial age

How will the world look when we finally wean ourselves from our oil-addiction – whether because we embrace new low-carbon advances, or just because the oil runs out? The graphic artist who worked on the series, Andy Mosse, reworked Turner's masterpiece so that the Fighting Temeraire, rather than being towed into port by a hardy little tug, is instead towing a clapped-out giant passenger ferry into harbour, through waters strewn with oil drums, shopping trolleys and plastic bottles. The age of coal and steam power has come to a close, and a new age of wave and wind is dawning. Gas turbines now give way to windmills, steam-ships to sail.

There's a term used by petroleum geologists: "Peak Oil". What it refers to is the passing of the last spike in global oil production. From now on, it seems, there will be less and less net energy available to humankind, no matter what we do. As the American ecology journalist Richard Heinberg puts it in his book The Party's Over, "the name we gave to the society made possible by cheap abundant energy was Industrial Society; the end of cheap abundant energy is the end of Industrial Society".

Just as Turner's painting shows the passing of the age of wind power, in Backwards History, Andy Mosse's mash-up of the Temeraire is a way of trying to get people to think of what a future without oil might look like.

The Decline of IT

When computers were first introduced to the workplace, Noam Chomsky gave a lecture on the effect they would have. At first, automation was seen as a way of giving power to skilled workers and getting rid of management. Then, Chomsky said, the managers had a better idea: what about using it as a way to de-skill the workforce and increase the power of management? I've written a sketch to suggest that this is not the only way it could, or shall always, be.

After a steady decline in the IT industry, jobs fixing computers start to dry up, until, in 1988, the Harrow March leaves London, heading for the North, looking for work in manufacturing and heavy industry. One marcher carries a sign: "Will Web-Design For Food?" Other are more poignant still: "Will Management Consult For Food?"

As the famished marchers pass the homes of those with safe jobs in manufacturing, they beg for soup or a crust of bread, in return for any brand-managing that needs doing around the house.

Darwin and Intelligent Design

I feel bewildered when I hear mainstream broadcasters discuss the mystical belief of intelligent design as though it shared empirical weight with its fusty old rival, "evolutionary theory". This is just one of the ways in which history really is going backwards. So I've imagined this conversation between the Elephant Man, John Merrick (above right), and Charles Darwin.

Merrick runs away from St Barts Hospital in London to join a travelling freak show. He tells us of the distinguished visitors he had when at Barts: "I had a conversation with Charles Darwin. He told me that humans are evolving into the lower mammals, such as chimpanzees. 'And elephants?' I enquired of him. 'Will all humans look like me in the future?' 'That depends,' said Darwin, 'on how many you shag.'"

"But since then," Merrick continues, "Darwin has changed his ideas completely and has just replaced the old idea of evolution with a revolutionary new theory that he's calling Intelligent Design."

Darwin informs Merrick by letter that he is planning to give a lecture at the Royal Society about this breakthrough. Merrick is looking forward to going, and introducing the great scientist from the platform. "But then," he says, "Charles sent a telegram to say that when he is giving his talk about intelligent design, he'd rather I wasn't anywhere near him."

The World's Last Ever Oil Well

In Backwards History, 1859 is the end of the Petroleum Era. In Titusville, Pennsylvania, an open-air ceremony is held at the capping off of the world's last-ever oil well.

In real history, this was the year and town where the petroleum industry was born. Colonel Edwin L Drake, its discoverer, declares: "One hundred and fifty years ago today, when environmental scientists first told us that if our species were to survive into the 1900s and 1800s, we would have to reduce the carbon in the atmosphere by an order of magnitude necessitating massive social change, it became clear to the people (if not the governments) that we'd need to change everything – the shape of our cities, our agriculture, our working week – and rescind corporate charters worldwide.

"Well, they said it couldn't be done... But we did it! Look around ya at 1859 and whaddya see? No supermarkets, no cars, no night shift! So let us now raise the last 5,000 plastic beakers the world will ever know in a toast to the passing of the Hydrocarbon Age."

And Finally – A Dissenting View

In Backwards History, 1859 means 1,859 years before Year Zero, when it is prophesied that in the Holy Land there will appear a Messiah with a popular Latino name.

This Messiah will also cast doubt upon popular notions of Technology Collapse. In a peroration before telling a parable set in the hi-tech telecoms era 2,000 years earlier, Jesus, a Mexican migrant, explains his belief that technology didn't collapse after all. "For there is," says Jesus, "a theory that if you look closely at a painting by Constable, you can see Alan Turing [code-breaker of Bletchley Park] and Einstein loading DVD players on to the back of the hay wain."

Have a look next time you see The Hay Wain. You'll be surprised.

The History of the World Backwards is on BBC4 on Tuesdays at 10pmRobert Newman's History of Oil is released on DVD on 5 November