Horizon

Illustration of the concept of a black hole

Illustration of the concept of a black hole

What has happened to Horizon ? Forgive me if I seem like a grumpy old man, but as a child I seemed to remember that Horizon used to communicate information. The latest episodes seem to have been taken over by the video editors leaving ‘content’ to be inserted episodically by a random scientist depicted non-stereotypically writing equations on a Blackboard. A BLACKBOARD! Who uses blackboards? The programmes are now made by people whose scientific credibility is zero. Their aim is to distract rather than engage; to give an impression rather than communicate an idea clearly; and to portray scientists as utterers of soundbites. It is dumbed-down science at its worst.

I had to switch the television off as I watched a programme about Black Holes this evening. The programme was APPALLING.

  • It showed evidence of a black hole as a  dark space on a photographic image. This is evidence of the absence of a bright thing or the presence of a dark thing but is not evidence for the existence of a black hole.
  • It said that the so-called singularity within putative black holes was troubling for the theory of general relativity. Call me easy going if you like, but I think a theory that describes gravity flawlessly over 60 orders of magnitude of length scales is pretty good. That it breaks down at very small length scales is not surprising or perturbing. We don’t know how to deal with this, but may be we will. Or maybe we won’t. We don’t know everything.
  • At the point at which I switched off it had failed to point out that while there are many candidate large objects in the observable universe – there is no observation of ANY kind of singularity.

And it just went on and on with tiny amounts of content trickled in. They spent a significant fraction of the programme at Niagara Falls yet failed to describe the key analogy that waterfalls embody: the existence – but undetectability – of the event horizon.

I’ll stop here: I want to go to bed. But what has happened to Horizon is indicative of a general lack of will – or ability? -to communicate complex scientific concepts. I say: sack the video editors and bring back the talking heads and the well drawn diagrams.

5 Responses to “Horizon”

  1. Mel Williams Says:

    Interesting. I suppose that one has to ask the question, “For whom is the programme intended?”

    If it is a programme made for an audience of scientists or, perhaps, of scientifically educated individuals, then it evidently failed on the grounds that it presented, in a magazine format, relatively disconnected and over-simplified vignettes.

    If, however, it is directed at a public whose general knowledge about, and understanding of, science and the nature of scientific enquiry, is very small, then the self-same format may possibly have achieved three things:
    tempted a number of people, who may have switched over after a minute or two of talking-heads, to hang in there a little longer to see what was going on;
    illustrated to those same people that there are BIG ideas in science, even though they may not have learned very much about the detail of those ideas in this programme;
    introduced the thought that science is not simply a collection of “stuff”, but a body of enquiry and uncertainty underpinned by best-fit observations that have to be reviewed often.

    Which is more valuable; to lure children into a museum with the promise of candy or to hand them a work-sheet and pull them through the door?

  2. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    Mel

    Thanks for that. Who is the programme for? I struggled with that question myself and I came to the conclusion the even the programme makers do not know the answer to that!

    This a programme screened at 9:00 p.m. so it is not targeted at children – maybe young teenagers and adults with an interest – however vague – in science.

    Looking at your three possible achievements – the style of the programme may well have lured some people into watching who might otherwise have changed channel. The idea that there are BIG ideas in science is valuable and I am not sure I understand the relevance of your last comment in this context.

    To turn your museum analogy – I thing the solution is to put something into the museum which engages people and then let them walk in through the door without candy or worksheet. In terms of this programme, it seems the programme makers have not understood the material of the programme and simply lack faith that people will find the material of the programme interesting in its own right: if presented in an accessible way.

    The problem is this accessibility. A programme maker = story teller has to find a way to relate one idea which may be unfamiliar to some other cluster of ideas with which people are reasonably familiar. My objection to the programme was that it seemed to make this connection in terms of the personalities of the scientists rather than in terms of the ideas. So for example, the trick of writing equations on a blackboard. They are using this arcane activity to indicate the weirdness of scientists rather than to talk about the scientific ideas. Communicating the ideas is harder – but ultimately that should be IMHO the aim of programmes such as Horizon.

  3. Mel Williams Says:

    Thanks for your reply.

    “This a programme screened at 9:00 p.m. so it is not targeted at children – maybe young teenagers and adults with an interest – however vague – in science.”

    My question was intended to be rhetorical rather than speculative. It is clearly not aimed at the scientific community , and I agree that the audience is the one that you have suggested – however vague. Its structure then, will be one that is likely to appeal to the widest ‘readership’- a magazine format.

    “The idea that there are BIG ideas in science is valuable and I am not sure I understand the relevance of your last comment in this context.”

    By my last comment – I assume that you mean my observation that science is about a body of enquiry, uncertainty and best-fit observations rather than ‘stuff’ – I mean that there is often a perception among the general public, certainly among many students, that science delivers certainties; that scientists have already found most things out, if you like. In science education, for example, we still spend a lot of the time transmitting ‘stuff to learn ‘ to students, and precious little time teaching them to enquire further. The programme illustrated a case where scientists clearly said (albeit rather over-dramatically) that what we thought they knew is being challenged by the evidence they are gathering. That’s important for people to know.

    I agree with you about museums, and that it’s about accessibility and story-telling. The story-teller is an important part of the mix, too. When I tell a story, like Red Riding Hood, for example, I’m not above putting on a gruff voice for the wolf and trying out a squeaky one for Grandma. Even though it conforms to a stereotype, the audience expects it and it helps them to see that I know a bit about the story. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too worried if personalities and arcana are used as props to help to keep the crowd’s attention and, perhaps, to get them to scratch their heads a little after the story’s ended.

  4. Chris Hobbs Says:

    I live in Canada and therefore never see the BBC programme being discussed but the original post has touched one of my buttons. I have followed the discussions at several university mathematics departments trying to keep their blackboards (see Alexander (Sasha) Borovik’s blog passim). The place where I teach (unfortunately not mathematics) changed from blackboards to whiteboards a while back, much to the detriment, I believe, of the teaching. It keeps one’s clothes cleaner but, the teaching (although not necessarily the doing) of mathematics being a performance art, it requires B I G symbols and grand gestures. These are much harder to do on a whiteboard.

    On the question of interesting people in science, I think one of the first thing to do is differentiate clearly between science and technology. We need scientists and we need engineers but the disciplines are very different. Here in Canada there is a CBC programme on “science” on a Saturday lunchtime that seems to think that “science == biology” and “the rest of science == technology”.

  5. 2010: A personal review « Protons for Breakfast Blog Says:

    […] what will probably be a minute or so of screen time, and was just overwhelmingly depressing. I have previously commented on the dire state of the Horizon team and this encounter did nothing to restore my hope. […]

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