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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