On television, part 2

I said I’d try to post some thoughts on the content of the Horizon I was in: it’s about to disappear off the iPlayer, so this seems as good a time as any. (Tip for UK university staff/students looking for recent TV and radio: your institution may have subscribed to Box of Broadcasts without telling you. Well worth a trawl: archive goes back to 2006, and is suspiciously catholic in coverage.)

Being incredibly vain, I had a good look at the blogosphere responses to “What Is One Degree?” on first broadcast. They were decidedly mixed. For the most part, people with a physics background were seriously irked or disappointed, whereas non-physicists found it a nicely put together introduction.

The ire was probably chiefly a product of the central concept. Having followed Ben Miller on a personal journey to find “the meaning” of one degree of temperature, the programme left us with very much the standard thermodynamic picture – material which, in the national schools curriculum for England, is pointed to at GCSE (age 14-16), and nailed down with Proper Formulae And Everything at A-Level (16-18). The oddity here is that, before his rise to prominence as one of TV’s leading Flanders and Swann parodists, Mr Miller was famously – and this was an integral feature of the narrative – a PhD student in low-temperature physics at the Cavvy. Now, for anyone who can operate at that level, basic thermodynamic definitions are The Rules That Lie Like Circuits In Your Brain. Viewers with a better-than-fuzzy recollection of classroom physics would have realised this, and would not have managed the necessary suspension of disbelief. Trained physicists don’t go around affecting surprise at molecular kinetics or the Heat Death concept.

The thing is… like my colleagues who work professionally on science communication issues, I am not a fan of the tendency in some scientific quarters to cry “Media representation of science needs to be more detailed and accurate!” and mistake this for an actual plan of what to do. The job of broadcast television producers is, fundamentally and irreducibly, to get the assorted buggers who own televisions out there to sit down and watch their commissions instead of switching over and watching something else. Like research-level physics, this is insanely difficult, and relies heavily on a thorough understanding of what techniques have been known to be productive in the past. Having to integrate the two sets of constraints is not exactly an aid to relaxation.

The programme as edited held very fast to various established genre conventions. The “quest” structure – all those lingering shots of Ben in what I’m told is a Citroën DS – was one; the “clown asks questions, is informed by expert” approach to dialogue was another. Mr Miller is, of course, known chiefly as a skilled performer, and it should be pretty obvious that there was some dramatic licence in, for instance, his greeting my “Heat is a mode of motion…” as news – just as I’m fairly sure that, in the earlier brewhouse sequence, he didn’t really lean over and stick his head into a stream of discharging wort. Is this kind of dissimulation acceptable? I suspect it’s unavoidable to some degree.

Some viewers lamented that the end result was “not Horizon” as they knew it, and in terms of narrative conventions they’re absolutely right: the old-established “blue chip” Horizon format relies on a rather different set of devices, discussed in a well-known paper by Roger Silverstone. The one thing that really does surprise me is that they went persistently for “clown”/“expert” dialogue in a programme built around Ben Miller, who would seem to be one of the few people on Earth who could combine the two roles and get away with it as a coherent narrative persona. Of course, it’s entirely possible that they tried that and it didn’t work.

Other complaints related to errors in the factual content. There is, however, an endlessly debatable dividing-line between “leading people astray” and “capturing the essence”, particularly given that almost all viewers of this kind of programme will never refer back to it at all, and will be left only with general impressions – as the people who make these programmes are well aware. Does it matter, for instance, that Peter Atkins’ “things even out”, in relation to entropy, was skewed as “things cool down” in the narration? Possibly not, in the grand scheme of things.

Of course, I’m not actually paid to communicate physics. I’m an academic historian: as far as public engagement goes, my role is essentially to sneak bits of socially informed historical context into other people’s science communication agendas. What attracted me to the Horizon gig is that historical and philosophical aspects were planned in from the outset: they were already talking to Hasok Chang, who has some fascinating stuff about the problem of stupid water which gets up to the boiling point and doesn’t realise it’s supposed to boil.


Note absence of spelling errors, which is also far from typical

(This, then, was an exception to the surprisingly common tendency for producers and organisers, who can perfectly well see the point of asking a trained historian about the history of socialism, surgery, socks, Sussex or Socinianism, to assume that the history of science is something only scientists do. The humanities-based HoSer who nonetheless manages to get input may find him/herself mistakenly credited as a scientist anyway. My aston for Horizon just said “Manchester University”. I do hope nobody thought I was trying to personate a physicist. I am in fact, like Ben Miller, a veteran of the Cav: the difference is that he managed a fair chunk of doctoral research before stardom beckoned, whereas I bailed out after two years of undergrad, having realised that (i) I wanted to do HPS instead for the rest of my life and (ii) I wasn’t any good: specifically, I never mastered the 741C op-amp, which as far as I could work out was designed to emit a loud “pop” and a burning smell whenever and however you plugged it in. I’m thus specifically Not A Physicist.)

Historical depth changes the game significantly in relation to those faux-naif questions. “Heat is a mode of motion” may be very basic physics now, but it was not basic, obvious or uncontentious in 1845. Your well-trained modern-day physicist is actually at a net disadvantage when it comes to grasping this: the idea’s an inseparable part of an immensely productive account of the nature of the universe, fully internalised by the physicist before she reaches legal drinking age, and seldom, if ever, to be questioned.

I will happily stand up for the need to reattach wonderment to such propositions, even if it’s done by theatrical means. I’d like to think that in an ideal world, proper historicism could crack the age-old problem of varying audience awareness: the old lags, rather than muttering “Yeah, we know”, uniting with the rookies in a chorus of “Blimey, I’d never thought about that…”

I’m not sure how far this could be done in practice, and I certainly wouldn’t hold “What Is One Degree?” up as a working example. My gut response to the history as presented (for which I was involved at the research stage but not, obviously, in the editing) just mirrors the typical scientist’s plaint: it was compressed and simplified to a level I’d want to call misleading. Of course, we’re back to “capturing the essence” vs “leading astray” again here: to give a very simple example, does it matter that Ben says “This is where modern physics started!” at the new Cavendish site in West Cambridge? Again, probably not (though it did sound odd from the mouth of a man who had just namechecked G I Taylor).

More basically, the programme as broadcast covered not only the historical and epistemic underpinnings of temperature, heat and energy, but the practicalities of present-day temperature metrology and high- and low-temperature research, urban heating, and stats in relation to climate change. That’s a lot. There is never going to be time to develop any one particular interest group’s particular thing in the way it would want.

From an HoS-and-the-public perspective, can anything be done about this? The iPlayer site gives a link to Hasok’s temperature resources: it would be nice – though much trickier than it might appear – to have online finding aids for follow-up materials being commissioned as a routine element of ‘serious’ documentary development. You know: “If you have been affected by any of the historiography in this programme, here’s a link to a relevant bit of Norton Wise”, kind of thing. (Actually, anent the mechanical equivalent of heat, here is a link to a relevant bit of Norton Wise: not paywalled as far as I can see.) Since writing this, I’ve been thinking about what the Guide To The Joule Paddle-Wheel Experiment, Aimed At Lay People But Still In Far More Detail Than You Get On The Telly, would have to include. Results next time.

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2 Responses to On television, part 2

  1. Pingback: History of science: spoiling everybody’s party | Whewell's Ghost

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