Science on TV or Confessions of TV Science Nerd

Recent months and weeks have seen a veritable explosion of science documentaries on British TV, from Prof Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Solar System , to BBC4’s Beautiful Minds to Channel 4’s current Genius of Britain (the latter with a surprising lack of online educational content considering channel 4’s highly successful online PSB-style content linked to One Born Every Minute and Embarassing Bodies).  The former are linked under the BBC’s year long World of Wonder brand, which also includes series such as Bang Goes the Theory and The Story of Science, and this isn’t even all of them.  Even for a science geek and telly addict like me, there’s only so much science I can take on at once!

There are several facets to and reasons for this boom.  The first is the most obvious, and cynical.  In a period of broadcasting uncertainty, nothing says Public Service Broadcasting like science TV (it’s also cheaper and relatively quicker to produce than that old PSB mainstay ‘Quality Drama’).  It connects with wider stated political and cultural concerns to drive more interest in science, maths and technology into children at an early age, and the Daily Mail can’t complain about it.  It allows the BBC, after a period of intense attack by certain sections of the press – and future uncertainty under Tory rule – to reassert its status as Public Service Broadcaster, falling back to the Reithian values of Inform, Educate and Entertain.  In a similar way, Channel 4’s Genius of Britain – counter-programming in the extreme to Britain’s Got Talent – can be viewed as part of that channel’s attempt to highlight its public service remit as it faces substantial financial losses and a potential sell-off/coalition.  It’s also not coincidental that the series airs the week before Big Brother returns for the last time.  A vision of a post-BB future, or a reminder of the channel’s educational value before it succumbs to Summer silly season for one last time?

I’d also suggest that this TV boom both feeds into and off a wider kind of zeitgeisty interest in Science. We can perhaps link this to excitement over the Large Hadron Collider, Science’s attempts to reassert itself internationally after the wilderness of the Bush years and in the face of British govt cuts, fears over climate change (and the first real mobilization of a youth protest movement in a generation) which nature documentaries such as Planet Earth have finally begun to acknowledge, and interest in popular science and debunking of myth in the books of Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh (and the latter’s libel victory, but that’s another story).  Science was a story in the recent UK election with the mobilising of the science vote and the unfortunate smear campaign against Evan Harris.  And science has a new, high profile face in Prof Brian Cox – Pin-up Professor, Rockstar Physicist, call him what you will (my favourite, along with Jim Al-Khalili, of the new breed of academics-turned-inspiring-presenters).

A hit TV series, a charming appearance on Jonathan Ross, a radio 4 series, regular appearances on 6music, star performances at Robin Ince’s School For Gifted Children and Nine Lessons… benefits (along with Goldacre and Singh), 80,000 odd twitter followers.  Cox is a transmedia science star, along with his peers circulating science news and campaigns to social networking’s army of sceptics, helping to make science cool .

Of course, there are still those that will complain of popular science tv programming ‘dumbing down’ knowledge, and there is a slight wiff of “50 Greatest British Scientists” to Genius of Britain. But the very fact that Channel 4’s antidote to dancing dogs and Ant & Dec is Steven Hawking fronting a programme on 17th century theorists and inventors makes me smile.

This has got a bit rambly.  I’ll leave it to Sam Wollaston: Science, “if it’s not the new rock’n’roll, then at least it’s the new cooking”


  1. Ah, thanks Faye, that is interesting. I haven’t seen very many of these science programmes on TV (the list of programmes I intend to watch but don’t get round to goes to the moon and back, repeatedly). You touch on issues of tone in relation to these programmes a little; do you have any more thoughts on that? I’d particularly like to hear how tone, mode of address and presentation, as well as performance are handled when it come to science rock star Professor Brian Cox…

  2. I think the beeb are getting really good and finding these presenters, and its not a coincidence that increasingly these are academics rather than ‘experts’. People like Cox and Al-Khalili are experienced in communicating their information effectively and enthusiastically to young learners. A lot of the contemporary science programmes are about showing through doing, through experience, rather than through a lecture (like the increasingly interactive exhibits at institutions like the Natural History Musuem’s Darwin centre). This comes to that issue of tone. I first saw Cox at a Robin Ince humanist benefit, stealing the night with his easy charisma, instantly getting me invested in quarks, drawing me in with tales of the LHC. I thought Chris Addison put it nicely in a tweet about BBC’s ‘Story of Science’, when he said; “You know what makes a good telly documentary? Joy, not journeys. I want enthusiasm and wonder, not fake ‘learning'”. Cox and these others communicate their excitement, their infectious joy and wonder at the world around them.

    Stylistically what i’ve found interesting in recent years is this move to meld the science doc with the ‘journey/travelogue’ narrative in this ‘teaching whilst doing’. Cox’s series was partnered with (another dishy intellectual) Simon Reeves investigatory current affairs/travelogue ‘Tropic of Cancer’ on BBC2 and both saw their presenters in picturesque world locations; only Cox was using the South American desert to illustrate planetary conditions, whilst Reeves was investigating gang violence in Mexico. We got our lectures on the solar systems, like with Carl Sagan, but here they were delivered below astoundingly rich South American night skies ablaze with stars, or computer simulations were projected on sheets amongst desert rocks. It was the Wonders of the Solar System told through the wonders of OUR world, indeed.

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