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 is a photograph with the Earth seen so small that it takes up less than a single pixel (see below).

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.

BBC4’s Voyager: to the final frontier is yet another in what is fast proving to be a golden age of science programming from the BBC (see for instance their recent doc on the Antikythera mechanism, The 2000 Year Old Computerhere.)

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 Earth seen from Voyager 1.

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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“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.