A tangle with gravity

by Suw on January 30, 2008

I wrote this post yesterday afternoon with the intention of posting it on Strange Attractor, but technical problems have stopped me from being able to post it there at all. Horizon was, by the way, fab.

Whilst Kev and I were at the gym this morning, we caught an interview with Dr Brian Cox on BBC Breakfast, talking to Bill Turnbull and Sian Williams about an episode of Horizon, What on Earth is wrong with gravity. I’m looking forward to seeing the programme tonight, having already seen a number of outtakes on Brian’s partner Gia’s blog. Thankfully, Gia has grabbed the interview and put it up on YouTube:

Now, gravity is tricky. It’s the sort of thing, like mass, that seem pretty obvious. You drop a pencil, as Bill did, and it falls until it hits a surface that stops it falling any further. We all know what gravity does. What’s less clear is what gravity is, how it works, what makes gravity pull things together. It’s actually a pretty difficult subject to tackle in a six minute segment.

Unfortunately, Bill and Sian – and whomever produced and researched the program – didn’t prepare any decent questions. Gravity is one of those subjects where seemingly simple questions have horrendously complex answers, if they have answers at all. Bill and Sian went for the simple questions, but Brian had only a few minutes – if that, given that they showed two clips of the programme – to try to answer.

Now, to my mind, the job of the presenter in these situations is to act as a proxy for the audience and to ask the questions that the audience want answered. The question that I suspect the audience most want answered about an episode of Horizon is: “Why should I watch this programme?” That was a question that Bill and Sian spectacularly failed to address, even indirectly, because they were focused on small but unanswerable questions instead.

Bill concentrated on dropping his pencil and asking querulously, “Why is it so complicated?” and then giggling like a schoolboy, I suspect because he felt a little out of his element. “I thought it was dead simple myself,” he says.

Brian has some great stories to illustrate his point. Most surprisingly, he talks about how if we didn’t correct for the way that time passes differently in orbit to on earth, our satnav systems would drift by 11km per day. But he’s forced to talk about spacetime without being able to fully explain what spacetime is and, frankly, anyone would be forgiven for struggling with that.

Sian then says, “I’m still not sure what causes gravity.” Well, you and the rest of the physics world. That’s not a smart question to ask, because there’s no answer, and the lack of an answer is going to flummox people. The point of this six minute segment is not to solve one of the universe’s greatest riddles, but to spark a little curiosity in people’s minds. And I can pretty much guarantee that no one woke up this morning and asked, “What causes gravity?”

Indeed, I did a straw poll of my friend son Twitter and Seesmic, and asked, “If I was an omniscient being, what scientific question would you like answered?”

From Twitter:

jrnoded: @suw why 42?
michaelocc: @Suw Is faster than light travel possible?
adamamyl: @Suw: why, on taking government office do incumbents forget they have principles/spines? Or, why int a resignation, a resignation, thesedays
zeroinfluencer: @Suw: How to make an affordable Holy Grail (Assorted Colours)
londonfilmgeek: @Suw Can i haz an Aperture Science Portal gun, kthanxbai
The_Shed: @Suw Are we even close to knowing the truth about anything?
johnbreslin: @Suw: Is this like “does anything eat wasps?” :) how about, where does all the time go (inspired by the Time Snails in “Captain Bluebear”)?
aidg: @Suw Science q for the omniscient: How the universe was created or the story of creation from primordial soup to multicellular organisms.
meriwilliams: @Suw Why is life?
tara_kelly: @Suw Dear omniscient being: is time really as linear as we like to think it is?

From Seesmic, my question:

An amazing question from DeekDeekster, that I personally would love the answer to:

Jeff Hinz echoes MichaelOOC, but from the opposite angle:

Christian Payne takes the Prince Charles line:

Dave Shannon asks the hardest question:

You’ll notice that no one, not one single person, asked “What is gravity?”.

Then towards the end of the Breakfast interview, they bring up the entirely spurious issue of the asteroid that missed hitting the Earth by 334,000 miles at 8;33am this morning. Cue the stupidest question of the morning: “If gravity is such a big deal, how come that asteroid that Carol told us about didn’t crash into Earth?” That’s like saying, if the sky is blue, how come grass is green?

To add insult to injury, Sian ends up by saying, “See, that’s why he has a PhD and we haven’t, because he can understand these sorts of things and we’re still bamboozled” and Bill finishes up with, “You’d managed a major achievement this morning, which is that you’ve managed to explain something to all of us and made us both feel really thick.”

Poor Brian didn’t stand a chance. How can you manage to extract even a shred of dignity from that? How can you pull back from that and say something that will encourage people to watch your programme?

If the Breakfast team had thought for a moment and actually talked to Brian before the interview about what questions would make for an entertaining and interesting interview, ruling out questions that no physicist alive can answer, and including ones that perhaps the audience actually want to know the answer to, then I suspect things would have gone much better.

But to me, this is indicative of the attitude of the media towards science and technology: “Oh, look at those weirdos over there with their white coats and strange ways of talking. They’re not like us. They’re Boffins.” It’s an attitude based in ignorance and fear, and nurtured by the unnecessarily divisive split between science/tech and the humanities at school and then university.

Yet at times like this, the “I’m too dumb to understand you boffins” attitude is counterproductive. All Bill and Sian have done is put off people who might otherwise have watched Horizon, and pissed off the people who definitely will. Which is foolish, given that they are working for the very same organisation that commissioned Brian’s programme.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

gia January 30, 2008 at 9:36 am

Suw, what a brilliant article. Obviously, I feel the same exact way about the BBC Breakfast presenters. I find it deeply saddening that people think it’s acceptable, amusing and take *pride* in the fact that they don’t understand or even attempt to understand science. Can you ever imagine a BBC Breakfast presenter saying, ‘Shakespeare?! Whoa I’m just too dumb to understand what he’s on about! It’s all just waaaaay over my head! Haha!’ Of course not.

Within our society generally the intellectual focus is on the arts, and science is seen as something the socially inept rejects are into – so, it *mustn’t* be important like art, music, literature, right?

The day that a BBC Breakfast presenter is ashamed of themselves for not attempting to understand science will be a day for great rejoicing. :)

Ewan Spence January 30, 2008 at 9:51 am

Hear, hear!

James Heaver January 30, 2008 at 10:28 am

BBC Breakfast have a tendancy to be like that with /all/ their guests.

peter January 30, 2008 at 11:18 am

thx suw

Suw January 30, 2008 at 1:16 pm

Gia, that’s a really common attitude, not just in TV, but in the majority of the mainstream media and, indeed, in large swathes of the population. I don’t really understand where it comes from, but when people start crowing about how technologically inept they are, it makes me want to spit feathers. I think it’s at least in part a class thing – using computers and technology is seen as a very lower-middle class thing to do, and everyone looks down on the lower-middle class.

It’s also tied into the massive anti-intellectual bent that the media and much of the UK population has. “Thinkers” are looked down upon, and if you’re smart you’re obviously a pinko liberal commie hippy bastard.

But hey, who needs tolerance and understanding when you can have a bitchy snipe-fest instead?

James Heaver January 30, 2008 at 2:44 pm

The other thing that people say with real pride is “Oh, I could never do numbers”

Owen Blacker January 30, 2008 at 3:04 pm

Well, if you will watch BBC Breakfast “News” ;)

Yeah, you’re right, though. There is precious little *real* science coverage in the media, Dr Goldacre notwithstanding. Of course it doesn’t help that over half the articles in the British press on the subject of anthropogenic climate change are denying that which no respected scientist disputes these days.

What irritates me most is that a lot of people who *think* they’re “cultured” seem to forget that culture is the sciences, as well as the arts.

gavin March 2, 2008 at 3:25 pm

It’s a continuing shame that the relationship between science, and the “public understanding of science” is never treated with the respect that it deserves.

I think it boils down to the fact that people prefer magic.

This is no excuse, of course, because if everyone made the effort they’d realiase there are whole other levels of magic to impart, which comes from genuine understanding.

UK science representation also has much to answer for in its outreach, but then you have to compare the PR budgets of somewhere like Jodrell Bank with that of the HST/NASA…

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