Saturday, September 10, 2011

Doing science justice

BBC4's Justice: A Citizen's Guide to the 21st Century was not your average television documentary. After a brief introduction from Harvard professor Michael Sandel, we were straight into his first lecture, listening along with a hall full of undergraduate students as he discussed Aristotle's Politics and its relevance to contemporary moral and political questions. Some concentration was required to follow the lecture; there were no pictures or movies, no interruptions by a friendly narrator to summarise for us in simple terms. It was a challenge for those of us with no background in philosophy or academic politics.

In Beautiful Equations, on the other hand, we were introduced to Einstein's equation by an 'art critic' who boasted about his ignorance of mathematics and found the very concept of equations to be baffling and incomprehensible. He might have been better advised to stick to his usual job, which appeared to involve creating oversized finger-paintings on walls, alarmingly suggestive of giant toddlers running riot. Surely the BBC could have found someone a little more qualified; even, we could dare to imagine, a mathematician? Of course the purpose was not just to present mathematics but explore a connection with art and beauty. But it is probably fair to suggest that there are more mathematicians with a deep knowledge of and genuine interest in the arts, than there are artists proficient in mathematics. The producers perhaps wanted a narrator the ordinary viewer could identify with? But we don't see literary discussions presented by people who can barely read or have never picked up a book. Why is the standard so much lower for maths?

We have certainly seen maths presented by experts. In The Story of Maths, Marcus du Sautoy gave us a fascinating history of mathematicians and their work over the centuries. But his efforts were limited by a bizarre reluctance to allow any actual mathematics into the content. However skilled the communicator, it is just not possible to explain the Riemann hypothesis in any meaningful way without showing the Riemann zeta function or the complex plane, to convey any understanding of the Mandlebrot set without a definition of the set itself, given by its generating equation. To attempt is like trying to describe a great work of literature or poetry without ever using a sentence: a remarkable achievement if you can do it, but why would you wish to?

A similar problem afflicts so much science programming. The BBC's Horizon had good intentions in its recent exploration of 'extreme astronomy'. But it looked and sounded better than it was: we saw sweeping panoramic shots of mountain and desert scenery and dazzling starscapes. Stirring and triumphant music played loudly, while the narrator intoned grand statements about scientists 'uncovering the secrets of the universe'. But so, so little content. And the result as always is that the non-scientist is left with the vague impression of 'scientists are doing some stuff' while the rest of us are frustrated: how does it work? What is the data and how did you process and interpret it? What does it mean?

So let's have some undergraduate lectures from Harvard or Cambridge (or Imperial!) in maths and physics, astronomy, genetics, engineering. Why not? We might not all understand every word, but surely it's better to be challenged and educated occasionally, than patronised and soothed with pretty pictures and music? After all, we have the Landscape Channel for that.