“Brave New World with Stephen Hawking” – Channel 4

It’s always a little conflicting whenever you see the name Stephen Hawking in a programme title. On the one hand, it’s wonderful to see a man who clearly presents something of a challenge to the medium of television being afforded the sort of attention he unquestionably deserves.

On the other, it’s hard to suppress the sense that the channel involved is just lazily cashing in on his renown. Happily, both of the most recent examples were made by people as interested in our understanding of the world as he is.

Into The Universe with Stephen Hawking (or Stephen Hawking’s Universe as it was called in Britain) was shown on the Discovery Channel and, despite its occasional brashness, was a genuine attempt at intelligently sculpting a programme around his core interests; the nature of the universe, and our place in it. And now, though very different in its scope, Channel 4’s Brave New World with Stephen Hawking looks at the many very practical discoveries that emerge from the explorations conducted by people like him.

Essentially, it’s an up-market (and alas condensed) version of Tomorrow’s World, the BBC series that used to gaze into the future with Blue Peter awe and child-like wonder. Sensibly, they’ve enlisted the services of five or six of our most respected popular scientists, including David Attenborough, Robert Winston, Jim Al-Khalili, and Richard Dawkins.

Scientists who are popular not because they in any way play down the complexities of their respective fields, but because they manage to communicate the nature of those complexities so accessibly. And the most iconic of all our popular scientists is Hawking (though quite how accessible A Brief History Of Time actually is, is very much open to debate).

There are just five episodes, each covering four or five different items and each segment is presented by the expert appropriate to the given field. Conceptually, they begin with an apparently arcane corner of the scientific landscape, before illustrating how incredibly useful that particular area of enquiry proved to be, by showing us one of the wholly practical inventions that grew out of it. As with all the best television, the examples they chose all needed to be seen to be fully appreciated, and often indeed to be believed.

The driverless car, for instance, that Google has developed is all very well. But you really need to witness the extraordinary way that it handles corners, at speed, to appreciate just how staggeringly fast the processing power in the computers that it relies on are. Similarly, you need to see what it means to paraplegics to be able to step into what amounts to a bionic suit that enables them to walk, to appreciate what this could mean to them.

And you need to watch physicist Kathy Sykes, as she travels down for more than two kilometres into the bowels of the Earth to visit the SNO laboratory in Ontario Canada, where they study the precise nature of Neutrinos, to appreciate what was involved in constructing a laboratory there. Our increased understanding of the nuclear fusion that powers our Sun has had, and will continue to have innumerable practical uses.

The programme acts as a wonderful celebration of all the practical things that complex areas of science can produce. And crucially, it treats the viewer as an intelligent equal. Hopefully, Channel 4 will have the good sense to commission a second series. And when they do, they’ll allow the programme makers apply the same rigour that they did to the first series.

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“Through The Wormhole” with Morgan Freeman – Discovery Channel

The barrier that all popular science programmes have to surmount is that so many of our recent discoveries have come through the avenues opened up by Special and General Relativity and Quantum mechanics. And they are both so unfathomably complex that it’s incredibly difficult to talk about either of them to the likes of you and I. Either you sacrifice the science for the sake of making your programme accessible, or you alienate your viewers by owning up to quite how insanely counter-intuitive the quantum universe is in the age of Relativity. Inevitably, programmes tend to err on the side of popular at the expense of science. They tend in other words to be more BBC1 (and 3) than BBC2 (and 4).

Recently though we’ve seen a number of programmes that manage to redress that balance, exploring the cutting edge of scientific discovery, but doing so in a way that the non-scientist can (just about) comfortably follow. Brian Cox’s programmes on the Wonders of the Solar System and then the Universe (see below), the History Channel’s The Universe, and now this, Through The Wormhole with Morgan Freeman. The way that he’s done it is, basically, by making a programme that he’s designed specifically for him.

Freeman plays the host, steering us through the day’s topic which range from black holes and time travel, to the origins of life and the possibility of intelligent life on other planets. But unlike so many of the figureheads who are tacked on to front programmes like these, Freeman is as genuinely interested in the topic being explored as we are. Like us, he too is curious about what we now know when we look up into the night skies, and what it can tell us about who we are and where we came from. But he too has never got around to formally studying it. So when he was asked to get involved in a series about space and the cosmos, he clearly saw it as a fantastic opportunity to explore all those things he was interested in a bit more systematically (or alternatively, he’s an even better actor than I gave him credit for).

The journey he takes us on in the course of the (so far two) series is as much his as it is ours. And the reason it works so wonderfully well is that he and it assume that we are as intelligent as he is, but no more so. So that whilst it never shies away from M (or string) theory, Relativity and the quantum universe, he’ll remind us every now and then that he’s as baffled and befuddled by all these apparently insane theories as we are. After all, as Nils Bohr, one of the great 20th century physicists put it:

“Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum mechanics cannot possibly have understood it.”

Apart from the mercifully brief flashbacks relating to so say childhood memories that each episode feels obliged to begin with, it’s a wonderfully engaging, science-heavy series that manages to be both accessible and stimulating. And the fact that it so successfully balances the dictates of educating, informing and entertaining (and in that order) is in no small measure a reflection on its genial host.

Series 1 and 2 can be seen on the Discovery Channel now.

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“All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace” – BBC

In 1974 Orson Welles made the apparently charming but quietly brilliant F For Fake. He was convinced he’d invented a new art form. On the face of it, it was a languid documentary about a famous art forger, but in reality it was used by Welles to prod and probe our notions of art and artifice, of authenticity and mendacity, and he used himself and his life as the vehicle with which to do it. It was in other words a meticulously constructed visual essay.

The essais, or “attempt” was pioneered by Michel Montaigne in 16th century France. It was, as Sarah Bakewell puts it in her superb biography http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Live-Montaigne-question-attempts/dp/0701178922, a way of “writing about oneself in order to create a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity“. Welles believed the medium of film was a wonderful opportunity to give the personal essay a whole new lease of life.

But to his dismay, F For Fake fell completely flat. And, although Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s magisterial Hitler, A Film From Germany was shown in cinemas three years later in 1977, all 7 hours and 17 minutes of it, it wasn’t cinema that proved to be the natural home for the filmed essay, but television.

The illusion of transparency that the anything but arbitrary quadrangle that television creates is the perfect space to pursue personal passions. It’s given voice to everyone from Jacob Bronowski, Carl Sagan and Kenneth Clark to Nick Broomfield, Michael Moore and Louis Theroux. But by far and away the most sophisticated author of the filmed essay is Adam Curtis. It is he who has picked up where Welles left off.

His latest, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace has just been shown on the BBC, and is divided into three parts. The first is its least convincing. Ayn Rand’s “economics” weren’t actually that much of an influence on Alan Greenspan, and the causal relationship he sketches between Asia’s economic chaos and our own six or seven years later is much more complex than he suggests.

The second instalment though is much more satisfying, and the pattern he weaves between some of the 20th century’s big ideas and the direction that the environmental movement headed off in is brilliantly stitched together. The third episode is even more impressive again, and is a searing indictment of Belgium’s responsibility for the genocide and chaos they caused in Rwanda in the latter half of the 20th century. But it is also a fascinating portrait of two of the most important recent evolutionary scientists, George Price and W.D. Hamilton, whose work paved the way for Richard Dawkins to popularise the idea of the Selfish Gene. And it contains an intriguing portrait of the American zoologist Dian Fossey, markedly different to the one you’ll see in Gorillas In The Mist.

What’s so exhilarating about Curtis, and in particular this third episode, is that he somehow manages to meld all these elements together alchemically to produce a coherent whole. So that what you get is three fascinating mini biographies, viewed in the light of the combustible way that science and politics often seem to interact.

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“Wonders of The Universe” – BBC

Of the many memorable images in Prof. Brian Cox’s regal Wonders of the Universe, the one that lingers longest is that of Andromeda, which he shows us on his laptop from the jeep he sits in near the Great Rift Valley in east Africa. Andromeda is the nearest spiral galaxy to our own. Indeed it’s so near, that despite the fact that practically everything else in our expanding universe is accelerating away from each other, the force of gravity between our two galaxies is so strong, that they are set on a crash course that should see them collide in about 3 billion years. For Andromeda is just two and half million light years away. But what exactly does that mean?

Well, two and a half million years ago our earliest ancestor, Homo habilis appeared on the African plains where he fashioned the first ever stone tools. And as he evolved through Homo erectus, antecessor, neanderthalensis and eventually into sapiens, those tools become increasingly sophisticated. But with the advent of agriculture after the ending of the Ice Age, around 15,000 years ago, he stopped roaming the plains and began to settle down. And when he did that, he started to look up and into the night skies, because agriculture needs a calendar, and for that you need the rhythms of the sun, the moon and the stars.

Over the thousands of years that followed we got better and better at reading the night skies, until finally, in the second decade of the 17th century, Johannes Kepler arrived at his third law of planetary motion as, at last, their mysteries were revealed. At exactly the same time, Galileo (and others) invented the telescope, giving one as a gift to Kepler, and we began the business of scientifically charting the heavens. So that by the time we get to where we are now, we can read the skies with such precision, sophistication and subtlety that we can point to Andromeda and say what it is, and how far away it is. Two and half million light years.

In other words, when the light that we see today left Andromeda, Homo habilis had just set foot in Africa. And during the time that it took that light to travel from there to here, at the fastest speed in the universe, we went through the whole of human evolution. Until eventually it reached us, its nearest neighbour, two and half million years later. That’s how vast the universe is, and that’s how much we can now say about it. And that’s why Prof. Cox was showing us that image, there, against the backdrop of Africa.

Incredibly, science is so badly taught at school that most of us leave with a profound aversion to it. And the full failings of our education system are only really exposed as we later come to realize what a magnificent vista it reveals. Which is why this series and the book that accompanies it is so important. Anyone with even the vaguest interest in a genuine education and all that that is supposed to encompass should have this series, its book, or both in their house.

You’ll probably need to watch the four episodes at least a couple of times – I certainly did – to digest all the information they contain. But be warned, the first episode bizarrely takes fully 30 minutes to get to its first bit of science. It’s then that he explains the significance of the second Law of Thermodynamics and its relation to the concept of entropy. And from that point on the series takes flight.

Entropy, the idea that time is only ever one-directional, that things only ever end up broken, they never end up whole, is something we’ve known instinctively for millennia. Indeed, it was the subject of the very first philosophical idea, by the Greek Anaximander, and lies at the very core of Judeo-Christianity. Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. But it was only in the late 19th century that we came to understand it scientifically. And both the series and the book illustrate and explain this, and much else besides, pristinely. What follows is three and a half hours of gloriously compact, unabashedly intelligent yet brilliantly accessible insights into the incomparable wonders of our universe.

Every house should have a copy, as they should the previous series, the equally impressive Wonders of the Solar System.

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“Bible’s Buried Secrets” – BBC

Archaeology is a surprisingly modern practice. The word was first used by Thucydides in the 5th century B.C. where he warned future historians against underestimating the importance of Sparta if all they did was to look at the evidence that Sparta left behind. It wasn’t until 1738 though that we first began to study ancient remains, when the digs at Herculaneum and then at nearby Pompeii were begun. But it was only with the advances made in the 20th century that Archaeology began to be practiced in a consistently scientific manner.

The only way to ever discover anything is by using the scientific method. You look at an event or phenomenon and suggest an explanation for all those sorts of things. Then you devise experiments to test your ideas, which you modify subsequent to the results that you get, when at last you can produce a theory. This is then examined and tested by your peers, who evaluate the tests you used and your interpretation of the results, until hopefully a consensus is reached as to the validity of your ideas.

So, in archaeology, you gather what evidence you can find, bits of pottery, rock, seeds, pollen, bones, and, if you are very lucky, texts, and you test them to see what information you can extract. For anything up to about 40-50,000 years old for instance, radio carbon dating can give you a very good idea as to what time frame you are looking at, and the more recent it is, the more accurate the reading. Alternatively, you might look at the use of grammar in a text to compare it with already established literary norms from other texts, to see whether what you have belongs to this or to that tradition.

Eventually you publish your conclusions, which are then careful pored over by your peers. What you cannot do, ever, is to begin with your conclusions, and then go about searching for evidence that supports them. This though is precisely how “archaeology” was conducted in the Middle East during the 50s, 60s and 70s.

The starting point from where they all began was, the bible is an historical document. Any evidence that was then unearthed that didn’t support that was, at best ignored, at worst destroyed. In any other part of the world, this sort of behaviour would have been deemed beneath contempt, and wouldn’t have lasted a week. But such were (and of course are) the sensitivities around the nascent Israel, that these incredibly un-scientific practices were left unchallenged for an entire generation.

Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s superb first episode in the BBC’s the Bible’s Buried Secrets charts this misuse of pseudo-science, and examines the copious quantities of actual archaeological evidence that the region has produced. The bible isn’t a factual document, and anybody who tries to read it as such is doing it a massive disservice. You’re meant to learn from its stories, morally. Its permanence and depth derive from its moral truth, not from its historical accuracy.

It’s a concise and confident introduction to terrain already covered by William Schniederwind (http://www.amazon.com/How-Bible-Became-Book-Textualization/dp/0521829461), and Thomas L. Thompson (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2000/sep/02/historybooks.nicholaslezard). The former is the easier read, the latter the more relentlessly scholarly.


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