Thursday, January 06, 2011

Please, BBC, give us more Stargazing Live

If, for some reason - maybe you've been on the streets in Oldham East and Saddleworth, in which case you have an excuse - you've missed the BBC's excellent Stargazing Live, broadcast over the last 3 nights, then don't miss the chance to catch up with it on iPlayer. 

If the aim is to make all this geeky sciency stuff mainstream, then I'm probably the target audience. It is a huge challenge for anyone to explain anything to do with Physics in particular in a way that my brain can understand. I really enjoyed Chemistry at school and got an A for my O Grade but I was always more inclined towards languages and social sciences.

Physics, though, was my absolute nightmare. I wouldn't say it was my worst subject at school, because there's no contest with Art for that dubious honour. It was a complete mystery to me, however.

However, there have been occasions in my life, when, if you don't call it Physics, I can quite enjoy science. And I do tend to come down on the side of things there's evidence to prove. Reading John Diamond's Snake Oil some years ago purged me of any sympathy I might have had for homeopathy.  I've always been fascinated by space, stars and planets, which you can expect of someone who's such a Doctor Who and Star Trek fan. As a family we've huddled on the Meadows in Edinburgh on a cold Spring night during the Science Festival looking through people's telescopes.

Because of the snow, the pile of presents I had for Bob looked a bit pathetic, as various Amazon packages hadn't arrived. I saw Professor Brian Cox's book Wonders of the Solar System in Sainsbury's one day and bought it for him, thinking it would be as much for Anna. He literally didn't put it down until he had finished it. Coincidentally, BBC4 was showing the tv series in the week between Christmas and New Year so we're watching them too. It was originally on during the election campaign which is why I have only just discovered the wonders of Brian Cox, although something tells me that at  some point Jennie was quite complimentary about him.

You think of tv scientists as being a bit bonkers, a bit eccentric. Magnus Pyke was the stereotype in the 70s with his wild hair and mannerisms. I used to love watching programmes like Don't Ask Me and Tomorrow's World. You think of scientists generally as being quite humourless, rational and devoid of heart and emotion. The overwhelmed and excited look on Brian Cox's face when he was talking to the astronauts on the International Space Station on last night's show proves that they can be human after all.

What pleasantly surprised me about Stargazing Live is that I understood (or at least I think I understood) a fair bit of it. I understand what  Coronal Mass Ejection is and why it might knock out our electricity. Seriously, that term was trending on Twitter on Tuesday night, partly because it might sound a bit rude, and partly because Dr Lucie Green explained it all so well. I wondered if Earth Rotation Aperture Synthesis would  catch on last night, but sadly it didn't.

Fair play to presenters Dara O' Briain (who is a former physicist) and Brian for doing a great job, but they were completely trumped by Liz Bonnin who managed to remain coherent despite being at a very high altitude on Hawaii. Brian Cox said that he'd filmed there a couple of times and the footage had never been used because the altitude basically made him behave like he was drunk. Liz managed to cope with all the demands of a live broadcast including interviews.

I think the main success of the programmes were that they managed to instil a sense of wonder at what's out there but still showed how the universe and its laws have a relevance to us today. I was quite relaxed about budget cuts for space exploration - I mean, it's more important, surely, to put limited resources into supporting the poorest. That's still my gut instinct, but listening to Brian talk about how studying what happened on Venus, which is now the hottest planet in the Solar System, and its our next door neighbour, might help us tackle climate change made me question that approach.

I hope that the BBC is going to make more shows like this. This 3 night taster made me want much more. The night sky changes so much throughout the year, and interesting celestial events are easy to predict. The presence of Jupiter, a meteor shower and a partial eclipse of the sun made 3 nights in freezing January a good time for an introduction, but the shows only scratched the surface and there's so much more that can be done. I'm sure they could get away with doing it once a quarter. This is the sort of quality tv we pay our licence fee for. It had everything - even a comedy moment as a meteor came down behind the oblivious reporter and was only picked up because everyone mentioned it on Twitter. That reminded me of the infamous occasion when Margaret Thatcher appeared behind an oblivious John Sergeant.

So, come on BBC, you've hit your target audience and whetted our appetites - now give us more.

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