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.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music.

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.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every week on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music.

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.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every week  with All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Tele­vi­sion and Music!

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.