Science and Nerves at the BBC

Last week you would have found three professors gathered nervously together in the depths of (Old) Broadcasting House waiting for the studio to be ready to air the week’s broadcast of In Our Time. Three professors who had never met before but who instantly got onto the subject of nerves in the face of the coming performance. I was one of the three; the second was Justin Wark from Oxford and the third was Andrea Sella from UCL. Andrea Sella and I each had one previous In Our Time notched up, Justin Wark was a first-timer. Given that the blurb for Andrea Sella’s Life Scientific interview describes him as a ‘science showman’ it may seem surprising that he too suffers from nerves in the face of a live recording, but we all agreed that nerves are really a necessary part of doing a task such as talking to Melvyn Bragg live to an audience of some millions (I believe; I may be wrong about that number). One needs the adrenalin to flow to help to keep focus and so do as good a job as one can. This is certainly helped by being able to look at the people you’re interacting with: those people who have done interviews ‘down the line’ i.e. remotely in some impersonal studio will know that engaging with a disembodied voice is much harder.

The topic of the week was States of Matter, and you can listen to it here. I won’t pass comment on the actual event since you can judge for yourself whether we acquitted ourselves with aplomb and accuracy but my guess is that signs of the lurking nerves will not have been audible (I can’t bring myself to listen to it so I can’t be sure). Apart from anything else, once the conversation starts there is no time to think about anxiety or terror; that is part of the act of concentration to erase all such extraneous thoughts. I think the programme team had done an excellent job of getting a diverse bunch of us together, one chemist (Sella) and two physicists but with totally dissimilar research interests. We each could bring something very different to the table. In fact literally we each brought a page or two of jotted notes in case of temporary memory failure of some critical fact.

When I was first approached a couple of weeks ago I thought this was an excellent topic and my mind immediately flitted, not to the obvious states of gases, liquids  and solids, but to the states that I feel are more interesting because less familiar. In my case, as a soft matter physicist, I wanted to discuss liquid crystals (familiar to you all through the screens on which you read this post) and gels and glasses, non-equilibrium states which couldn’t be described as phases in a thermodynamic sense. In practice, we didn’t get very far with these, or other, more unusual states.

With hindsight I think this topic was simply too large to make a satisfactory programme. Looking at the list of topics covered in the past I see that whole programmes have been devoted to a single book (including Silas Marner, Brave New World and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man) or a single individual, Bishop Berkley and Spartacus being recent examples. Taking a relatively well-defined topic such as a single novel means that there is space to discuss many interesting issues in some depth, whereas (at least in my view) the problem with the topic of States of Matter was that too much of the programme needed to be devoted to the basics of the phase changes themselves. As a physicist I may take boiling and melting for granted but it takes a long while to explain what is going on (I tried) to a general audience. Anyhow I still think the liquid state is pretty mysterious!

Andrea Sella did a great job of describing the nature of a phase diagram with words alone (likening it to a map of Africa with the phase boundaries denoted by the borders of different countries). Being the showman that he is described as, he brought along an audible toy: dry ice, to use as a prop for discussing sublimation by placing a lump of it against some metal to hear it squeak and crack as the gas sublimed. (Privately, we joked about the health and safety implications of travelling with a Dewar full of it. I should add he didn’t use the BBC lifts.)

The trouble was that so much of the programme had to be devoted to basic definitions because the audience could not be assumed to know them, possibly not even to know the difference between an atom and a molecule.  I may think that distinction is a piece of basic science literacy like knowing the outline plot and context of Silas Marner (a book I love), but unfortunately that is not how science is perceived.  This media perception that science is somehow ‘different’ as well as probably ‘difficult’ was reinforced by a curious set of images in this weekend’s Guardian of ‘secret scientists‘. The people featured ranged from the obvious and much-cited examples of physics-trained Brian May and Dara Ó Briain to the less well-known ones of Harry Hill – who practised as a doctor – and biology-graduate Lisa Kudrow. By using the word secret it was if they were expected to be trying to keep their early love of science quiet. It is hard to imagine a newspaper running a similar set of photos of ‘secret lawyers’ or ‘secret modern linguists’, so it is rather hard to understand the motivation for the photo-gallery beyond the apparent assumption that to be a scientist is to be peculiar.

I applaud programmes like In Our Time which include science as a major feature in their chosen topics: I am encouraged to see that, with 180 episodes classed as science on their available downloads it is the largest of their 5 categories. Nevertheless, it is difficult to go into the depths that other topics do because one has to assume a general unfamiliarity on the audience’s part. Looking at their top 10 in the science category I note that it includes Genetics. (It also includes Macromolecules, the programme I featured in previously so that is something I feel rather pleased about). How could they expect to cover a topic as vast as this in a single programme? I suspect it will have had to be very superficial not least because of starting from a standing start. How does this contrast with two episodes variously on Aristotle’s poetics and his politics and does this make the balance right?

I am delighted that In Our Time has invited me to participate (twice) and share my love of science with the non-scientist at home in their living room. I would hope one day they might do follow-up programmes solely touching on one of the exotic states of matter we could barely touch upon this time, such as liquid crystals. There is plenty of history there, which seems to go down well, plus modern applications familiar to all so there would be no shortage of material. The problem remains that in our media (as in our schools), science is regarded too often as other and alien and its basic vocabulary still does not sit comfortably with people in the way that historical and philosophical facts do so that they can be taken for granted.

It is encouraging that science does get its look-in on Bragg’s programme, billed as discussing the history of ideas. But across the board it is too easily perceived as a specialist interest, including in the BBC’s own workforce. Science is fundamental to our lives and ignorance of basic scientific facts should be regarded with as much unease as any other kind of illiteracy. We are a long way from that position yet.

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10 Responses to Science and Nerves at the BBC

  1. Fred says:

    I heard the show in the car last week – I liked it but I thought there was scope for the programme to go beyond solid, liquid, gas and ‘plasma’ phases of matter.

    It would be interesting to talk about Bose Einstein Condensates – a phase of matter distinct from liquid, solid and gas.

    I’d like such a program to touch on superfluids such as Helium-4 and Helium-3; it’s notable that there are materials which, in the absence of quantum mechanics at the level of atoms, would be solids, yet for which quantum zero-point fluctuations ‘melt’ any crystal lattice, making a liquid the lowest energy state even at absolute zero. (It would cost more energy to localise the helium atoms in a crystal than to allow them to delocalise)

    It’s also interesting that we can study the BEC to BCS transition by manipulating Feshbach resonances in cold atomic gases – an area which has yielded a Nobel prize or two in the last decade.

    I got the sense that essentially the same radio programme might have been made in the 1940′s as in 2014m and that an adult who paid attention during school would have been familiar with most of the contents.

    Maybe it’s a deliberate choice to exclude things that are too unfamiliar, but it’d be interesting to communicate that there are still open questions and that genuinely new things are being found out about even a supposedly well-understood topic as the available states of matter.

    • Justin Wark did describe what a Bose Einstein condensate was but, like me touching on liquid crystals, there was no time to discuss their curious behaviour in any detail. I agree, on its own it could make a fascinating topic. I suspect there has been progress on the solid-liquid transition since the 1940s. Much of the reading (and mental picture) I have on it derives from the late 1950s and early ’60s in the form of the early computer simulations of Alder and Wainwright (done by the unmentioned researcher Mary Ann Mansigh who is on none of their publications) and the polyhedral packing work of JD Bernal.

  2. Bill Harvey says:

    Don’t frighten the horses is one part of this. I suspect they are right that if it is stretching Melvyn’s mind too far it has lost a lot of the audience. It would be interesting to know whether the avid followers of lit and hist are as enthusiastic about “science”.

    Important, though, that the need to keep moving forward in science learning isn’t overlooked. Stuff often isn’t understood the first time but there has to be a first time if understanding is ever to come.

  3. cromercrox says:

    I’m glad you raised issues of ‘soft’ matter in your post, as these are the kinds of things people will be familiar with in their daily lives but might know less about than liquids, solids and gases. Squishy stuff like suspensions, colloids and gels, the physics of which rule everything from basic cookery (scrambling eggs and so on) to the functioning of the human body, and yet are amazingly poorly known, at least to me.

  4. Alice Bondi says:

    As the non-scientist in a scientific family, I felt this was probably pitched about right for what it was trying to do BUT I would love future programmes on the more specialised aspects. Many, many of ‘In Our Time’ broadcasts result in a feeling that they’ve tried to cover too much (this includes the more arts- and humanities-based topics) although it’s probably the science ones where it’s most obvious. And that feeling is explicitly shared by Melvyn Bragg himself and contributors, either at the end of the programme or in his follow-up newsletter. The literature, art and history specialists feel similarly that their topic has been skimmed and could do with more in-depth examination.

    It’s the science ones that I listen to again and again, and often go on to read more as a result, usually from the contributors. I still treasure the episode on The Second Law of Thermodynamics – when I listen to it, I manage to have at least 20 minutes after listening when I feel I understand Life, the Universe and Everything – as ’twere!

  5. Alice Bondi says:

    PS Sorry, should also have said – I thoroughly enjoyed the programme and am planning another listen. I’ve already looked several things up on line and will be talking to my theoretical chemistry-doctorate brother about more.

    • Alice
      It is so encouraging to know that the non-scientist does find the programme accessible. I think it is excellent that the speakers are asked to suggest a ‘reading list’ for people to look into the topic more, but even then it is not easy to find books at the right level. Interesting that everyone feels their programme can only skim over the chosen topic, whether science or not. I suppose that is the trouble with experts in general but in fact I don’t think that was my reaction to the previous programme I participated in. Of course there was more that could have been said about Macromolecules back then but I thought we had been able to get across the essence of the subject.

  6. For what it’s worth, I thought the programme actually worked very well – really nice explanations of the basics, and an effective if somewhat superficial survey of the surprisingly many aspects of the topic that really aren’t well-known, even if their names (like liquid crystals) are familiar.

    You may well be right that this topic was a little too broad to cover really satisfyingly in the time allocated, and
    I too hope they’ll return to some of the sub-topics in more detail (which they’ve often done, in science and other topics)… But I think there’s a lot of value in giving people an overview of what they didn’t know they didn’t know, if you know what I mean.

  7. I’m going to send a link to my year 10 physics class suggesting the first ten minutes could help them with the homework I set on latent heat, and the rest might just give them an idea of how much interesting stuff there is to learn at this particular intersection of chemistry and physics. :)

  8. Mark Field says:

    Just listened to the broadcast via podcast on Friday, I think the level of the program worked very well. Like a good novel, you should always leave the audience wanting more and with the certainty that there are much deeper truths there just off scene. If you could cover most of a subject it would not seem so interesting.

    With the podcast you actually got an extra five minutes after the show ended with everyone discussing what else they would have liked to talk about.

    I get the impression from other “In our Time” broadcasts that the show is much more controlled than one might initially consider. It comes across as Melvyn Bragg just letting the experts talk, but the show is structured in terms of the host throwing a stick for a particular guest to retrieve to cover a certain part of the story, and then repeating that with another guest. If the guest gets too off-topic or just long winded, they are stopped in short order, and this control allows the audience to feel they are not being lectured (in the pejorative sense), and keeps the discussion to what a non-expert considers interesting. Melvyn Bragg really does curate the ideas as a story, as well as getting through a satisfying chunk of material in a limited time. Without this the show would become a worthy but impenetrable mess.

    The section on host – guest materials was particularly interesting. Firstly I had not come across this before and it was brilliantly introduced, and secondly I was hearing this while driving north from Los Angeles along the interstate 5 freeway which has dead straight sections in the California central valley that you can sometimes see 10 – 15 miles ahead (the Romans would have been proud of roads that linear). The cars on the freeway were certainly fluid within the small pore that was the two lane road held within the solid of the valley floor extending flat for miles on either side.