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.