The Amazing “Scale of the Universe 2” interactive Graphic.

Scale of the Universe 2.

Scale of the Universe 2.

Dara O’Briain’s Science Club had its second series on BBC2 over the summer. Impressively, he managed to keep it genuinely informative and fun without ever becoming patronizing.

Like a number of his fellow BBC2 and 4 presenters, most notably Brian Cox and Jim Al-Khalili, he refuses to dilute any of the science, whilst insisting on making it all as accessible as possible. And he’s ably assisted by fellow presenters Mark Miodownik, whose recent book Stuff Matters got rave reviews, including this one from The Guardian.

The BBC2 Science Club team.

The BBC2 Science Club team.

And by Helen Czerski, who gives the impression that she knows that the topic she is covering is fascinating, but is resigned to the reality that none of us will be able to follow what she has to tell us about it. Which, needless to say, makes what she has to say all the more appealing.

One of the sidebar topics that O’Briain covered during the summer was an amazing info graphic that went quietly viral about a year ago. The reasons that it generated so much interest were twofold.

First, it really is a brilliant graphic. You scroll in and out, from the smallest things in the universe at the length of the Planck Constant at 10 to the minus 35 of a meter, to galaxies, nebula and the entire observable universe. And it’s all perfectly to scale.

Jim Al-Khalili's "Science And Islam".

Jim Al-Khalili’s “Science And Islam”.

Predictably, I (and I should imagine many others beside) spent a number of hours looking things up, convinced that they’d made a mistake. But no, the Earth really is that close in size to Venus, likewise Neptune to Uranus. Have a look at the Scale of the Universe 2 here. It’s addictive.

Although of course Apple won’t let you use Flash, so you won’t be able to fool around with it if you’re using an iPhone or Pad. But you can see how the whole thing works on them here.

Second, even more remarkably, the whole thing was put together by Cary Huang,  a 14 year old school boy from – where else – California, together with his twin brother Michael. For Fun. It wasn’t even a school project. All it took was the Internet and a pair of infinitely curious minds. There’s an excellent overview and interview with them by David J. Hill on the Singularity Hub here.

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Bill Bailey Celebrates the Other Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace.

TX-card-crop-pro1-1.5+(1)I was quietly dreading Billy Bailey’s Jungle Hero, his programme on the forgotten co-discoverer of Evolution by Natural Selection, Alfred Russel Wallace.

Few things are as tired or as tedious as watching yet another so say comic being hilariously mismatched with an incongruous topic, and sent off in search of an exotic location to use as a pointless backdrop.

Happily, this was very much the exception to that rule. Which was principally down to Bailey’s unmistakable and genuine enthusiasm for his subject, and their joint area of interest.

Alfred Russel Wallace was an amateur scientist in the classically Victorian mould. He spent his life trying to make sense of the animal kingdom and our place in it. And he funded his quest by travelling to the farthest corners of the globe, collecting exotic specimens that he was able to send back home and sell in London.

located-in-southeast-asia-in-the-malay-archipelago-indonesia-indonesia+1152_12987332687-tpfil02aw-18651These twin pursuits, of knowledge, and of collecting insects – and discovering new ones –  are clearly shared by Bailey. And there really was only way for him to tell us about Wallace and his discoveries. Which was to take us with him on the journey that the latter made in the 1850s.

Bailey and his fellow film makers got everything just about right in this programme. The explanations of how Russel arrived at the idea of natural selection, and of why it was that it happened there, in the Malay Archipelago were clear and simple without ever being over simplified. And they were interspersed with just about the right amount of local colour and personal anecdote.

There was a political slant to the programme too. Wallace is the forgotten figure in the story of evolution by natural selection. We only ever remember the first person to discover anything, and society and the scientific establishment chose to celebrate the well-bred Darwin and not the lowly Wallace, despite the fact that their papers were presented together.

Indeed, Darwin was only moved to publish at all because of what Wallace had sent him. When to his horror, he discovered that his life’s work was in danger of being eclipsed by this amateur enthusiast on the other side of the world.

BillBaileyAll of which is true. But Darwin had been working on his theories for nearly 20 years before Wallace had his eureka moment. But he understood how explosive an idea natural selection would prove to be, and he wanted to gather as much evidence as he could before publishing anything.

And there were other reasons why the scientific world forgot Wallace. Like his proselytising of Spiritualism, and his credulous championing of séances, both of which he insisted on seeing in a “scientific” light.

Nonetheless, he deserves to be more fully celebrated, and Bailey is demonstrably the perfect man for the job. The concluding episode is on this weekend on BBC2.

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BBC4’s Spectacular Vista of our Voyage to Neptune and Beyond.

For a long time in the 20th century it was widely believed that we would never be able to travel through space further than to our nearest neighbour, Mars. The fuel needed to counter the gravitational pull of the sun and planets would make that impossible.

But when a brilliant PhD student solved one of the great maths’ problems, the whole of the solar system suddenly opened up.

The problem being; how do you work out a space ship’s trajectory when its position is being constantly affected by the huge gravitational pull of the sun to one side, and an enormous planet to the other? Every new position will then be differently affected by both, and in constantly varying ways.

Once that had been solved however, they suddenly realized that you could use that massive gravitational pull as a lasso to fling your space craft off in any direction you liked. Furthermore, you’d be able to do so without using up any fuel whatsoever. Your momentum could propel you indefinitely.

Then another grad student spotted that the four biggest, outer planets, Jupiter, by far and away the biggest, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune (Pluto was re-classified as a dwarf planet in 2004) would all be aligned between 1975-7. We would have to wait another 200 years for the next chance.

So in 1977 the two Voyagers, I and II were launched. And over the next 12 years they sent back extraordinary data and photographs of our four biggest gas planets and their couple of hundred moons.

When Voyager II eventually arrived at Neptune, some 3 billion miles away, they needed to be able to calculate the precise moment it passed the planet’s North pole, to within one, single second! The photographs that resulted were spectacular.

And that it was thought was that. But then Carl Sagan, Nasa’s de facto spokesman had an idea. Why didn’t they get Voyager I, as it sped away from us, to turn around and take a photograph of us from the edge of our solar system?

The result, for my money, is the single most important photograph ever taken.

On the one hand, it’s a timely reminder of how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. But on the other, it’s a celebration of how extraordinary we are. We sent a machine nearly four billion miles and 13 years into the future to take a photograph and send the information back to us, so that all of us can have a look at it today.

Voyager I is 11 billion miles away as we speak and has just reached the outer reaches of our solar system. It’s still sending back data, which it does using a millionth of a billionth of a watt. And the data that it sends takes 15 hours for the speed of light to reach us.

And all of it built in 1977. That, by the way, was the year Apple was launched.

This was about as perfect a television programme as it’s possible to make. And it’s yet another in what is fast proving to be a golden age of science programming from the BBC (see also, for instance, my earlier review of the Antikythera mechanism here).

It struck exactly the right balance between calmly providing the facts, and quietly looking up in awe. And if at all you can, watch it.

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The Antikythera Mechanism; Another Superlative BBC4 Documentary.

We are exceptionally lucky to be living at this moment in time. We have a staggeringly privileged view of who we are and where we stand. We know more about the human body, the size of universe and what atoms are made up of than ever before.

But the corollary of all this is a tendency to view what was known in the past with faint derision. This is grossly unfair.

To take a simple example. For a long time, right up until the 16th century, it was assumed that we were at the centre of the universe, and that everything else revolved around us. But this wasn’t something that had been casually concluded.

If the Earth was moving, as Philolaus had suggested as early as the 5th century B.C in Greece, then why don’t we feel any wind resistance? And if we drop something from the top of a building, shouldn’t it fall at an angle, as a tennis ball would if you dropped it from a moving car?

The most sophisticated argument the Greeks produced against a moving Earth was the absence of stellar parallax. If we were moving, then it should look to us as if  the nearby planets were moving from our (moving) perspective, relative to the distant (and fixed) stars. But that, to the naked eye, doesn’t happen. So clearly, we are not moving.

Eventually, by the early 3rd century B.C. Aristarchus put forward two possibilities. A universe with the Earth at its centre, a geocentric one, or one that resolved around the sun, a heliocentric one. We know from Archimedes that he himself favoured the latter.

The extraordinary devise at the heart of the BBC4 documentary The Two-Thousand-Year-Old Computer very probably originated in Archimedes’ workshop. And it illustrates yet again quite how knowledgeable and ingenious the ancient Greeks were.

Incredibly detailed analysis of this small devise, discovered in 1900 in a shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera, has shown that what it seems to be is an incredibly intricate astronomical mechanism.

It was designed as a means of illustrating the movements of the planets (no mean feat in itself), and as a way of predicting the solar eclipses that were so much a part of their Metonic calendar. This was a 235 month cycle that was the equivalent of 19 solar years.

In other words, it was how the ancients grappled with the problem of the leap year. For despite their increasingly elaborate attempts to counter it, their seasons were continually falling out of line.

This programme brilliantly illustrates quite how knowledgeable they were then. But conversely, as much as anything else, it encapsulates quite how much we know today compared to any other era in human history.

Because it is only now that we have the capacity to use all of the different scientific strands that we now have to examine and unlock the devise’s extraordinary secrets. In any other era, it would have remained a small muddy lump of ancient metal. Only now were we able to microscopically examine it to reveal the breathtakingly intricate mechanism within.

And it is only as a television documentary that all this information and research can be amalgamated and presented in such an accessible, immediate and enjoyable way.

What this shows once again is that television is the most powerful educating force since the invention of the printing press. And both of course have now been augmented by the arrival of the internet.

If you’d like to know more about this extraordinary devise, go here. Better still, if at all you can, watch this programme.

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Weather Forecasts, and What We Now Know in the BBC’s Superb “Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey”.

Orbit: Earth's extraordinary journeyLast autumn, Kate Humble presented a one-off programme on BBC2 called Will It Snow? The question it asked was, is it possible to make long-range weather forecasts? And the answer was an emphatic No.

Weather patterns are subject to what chaos theory dubbed the butterfly effect. A butterfly beats its wings off the coast of Tokyo and six months later there’s a hurricane in Florida.

The problem is, every time you try to make a set of predictions you need to factor in about a dozen variables. If any one of those variables behaves slightly differently than expected, then that will have a knock-on effect on half a dozen other variables.

And each of those will affect half a dozen other variables, each. Any number of which will eventually come back to radically affect many of those original variables a few weeks or months later.

Any mid to long-range predictions therefore will have been rendered completely useless. And that’s assuming there’s only a slight variation in one of the original twelve. Invariably, there are innumerable small variations across the board.

So whilst it is possible to make accurate predictions over a four or five day period, because you can allow for those slight variations, over anything more than a few weeks those small changes will come to have huge and completely unpredictable ramifications.

This topic was treated in a much more measured way when Humble teamed up with Helen Czerski for their three part series, Orbit: Earth’s Extraordinary Journey. During which, they followed our planet as it made one of its annual orbits around the Sun.

Using various exotic locations across the globe to illustrate the different phenomena they were exploring, they combined exactly the right mix of glossy, travelogue locations and fascinating, sober scientific explanations.

We learnt and were shown how the Earth’s tilt is responsible for the annual seasons, and discovered how it, the tilt, is one of three elements that determine when and why our planet experiences sporadic Ice Ages. Crucially, they kept the science accessible without in any way becoming patronizing.

For not withstanding our inability to ever be in a position to make long-range weather forecasts, for the first time in our history we can provide a scientific explanation for a huge range of the weather phenomena that govern life on this planet.

Though the Earth’s tilt has long been guessed at, it is only now that we understand definitively that it has a 41,000 year cycle, during which it moves from an angle of 24.5 degrees to 22 and back again, and that currently it’s at 23.5°. Likewise, whilst tornadoes and monsoons have long since been marveled at, today we can provide a scientific explanation as to how and why they take place. And although we’re never going to able to say exactly when and where they are going to happen, discovering what we can and can’t predict is the most valuable gift of all that science had given us.

Once again, the BBC took us on a guided tour of what we now know, and how it is that we know it. It’s an area they’ve become increasingly impressive in, and there’s a distinct sense that, as far as scientific programmes on television are concerned, we’re living in something of a golden era.

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