Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Science Seeing Stars

I’ve got to be honest; I’m getting a little fed up constantly being told by seemingly everyone and their granny just how ‘fascinating’ Professor Brian Cox is in his ‘revelatory’ new series ‘The Wonders Of The Solar System.’ Now don’t get me wrong I’ve got nothing against the man personally, or even the show he presents in particular. I’ve watched it a couple of times actually and found it to be informative and enjoyable enough, probably thanks in no small part to its perfectly engaging, likeable and awright-to- look-at-if-you-like-that-sort-of-thing-I-suppose host. My problem is more with the bizarre notion which seems to be doing the rounds that what this floppy haired pin up is telling us is somehow groundbreaking, earth shattering news. It’s really not.

Look, the irony of all this is that I’m not even especially interested in our solar system or the possibilities of space travel or any of that lark. Truth be told it’s all a bit over my head (*BA-BOOM-BOOM-TISH* Thanks very much, I’ll be here all blog, don’t forget to tip your waitress) and anyway as far as I’m concerned, people on earth obsessing about other planets thousands of light-years away is a bit like staring out the window at a mansion miles off in the distance while the fire alarm goes off in your flat and bailiffs slowly remove its contents. However despite this genuine lack of interest, even I know that Brain Cox is not exactly taking us into new intergalactic territory here.

The reality is, scientists – good old fashioned, supremely intelligent, socially awkward, terrible jumper wearing, no significant other having, untelegenic scientists – have been telling us this stuff for decades. Literally decades. They’ve spent all that time closeted away in laboratories and observatories, peering through telescopes for weeks at a time, hunched over pages of incomprehensible data hour after hour or continuously comparing minute fragments of anonymous rock. Testing and re-testing, analysing and re-analysing – all this hard work precisely so they could bring us ‘The Wonders of the Solar System’ a full generation before the current programme of the same name. Did we care? Did we buggery. But you put all that painstakingly compiled knowledge in the former synthpop keyboard playing hands of the BBC’s own scientific D:reamboat and within a few weeks everybody in the country is Stephen bloody Hawking. You can’t tell me that doesn’t put the scientific community’s collective noble gas at a peep just a wee bit.

All the girlies say he's pretty fly for alumni.

How do I know this then, if I’m so completely uninterested by the whole subject you may ask? No really, you may, go on...Well, it’s true, I couldn’t give a monkey’s, but for a while there a good few years ago now, another thing I couldn’t do was sleep. At all. So it was during a period of temporary insomnia that I stumbled upon ‘The Sky at Night’ a programme shown in the wee small hours of the morning and presented by respected amateur astronomer Sir Patrick Moore. Here, I thought, was viewing so delightfully dull that it might just be a potential cure for my condition. Unfortunately it wasn’t and I ended up accidentally learning something. Exactly the same something which I heard Prof. Cox explain to me again just a few weeks ago. They’re basically the same show. Why then has Sir Moore – a knight of the realm no less – spent all those years in the deepest darkest corners of the TV schedules, preaching to both his loyal audience, while Prof. Cox – a nineties dance act’s ex-keyboardist no less – lands straight in a prime time slot and grabs everyone’s attention. It can’t ALL be about image, surely? We can’t have reached a point in our existence where we’re so driven by celebrity culture that we’ll only pay attention to someone if they used to be in a band and are easy on the eye?

But what else can it be? Like I say ‘The Sky at Night’ and ‘The Wonders of the Solar System’ present pretty much the same information, just in different ways. “The Sky at Night” never had fancy computer graphics or aerial helicopter shots; all it had was the sky (you guessed it) at night. Come to think of it, the slightest wisp of a cloud appearing over the stars and they didn’t even have that. Far as I could tell Sir Pat’s budget barely stretched to a chair for him and his guest (who although usually an immense intellect and highly respected professional in their field, more often than not had chat which made the Radio 4 shipping forecast sound like James Brown at his performing peak.) If somebody so much as pulled out a graph you knew it was gonna be a racy one.

There was none of this idea you get in ‘The Wonders of the Solar System’ of filming locations which are apparently ‘the closest thing on earth to the surface of other planets.’ Aye, pull the other one Cox. “Venus has a surface temperature of 467 degrees. Much, much hotter than this Hawaiian beach I’m on at the moment, there’s simply no way these bikini clad lovelies could exist long enough to serve me drinks or rub my shoulders on Venus.” “Neptune has a temperature of -225 degrees that’s considerably colder than this five star alpine ski resort. There’s no chance I could survive long enough to ski down the slopes of Neptune like this...” “Many of the planets in our solar system have a volatile liquid surface, this Jacuzzi I’m in is as close as we can ever hope to get to that on earth.” Sure it is Brain, sure it is.
Having said that...I mean fair play to him; there’s no denying Brian Cox is making this astrophysics guff much more palatable for us. He’s the celebrity cheese on the slightly stale dry bread that is science. Who knows, that might be the way forward – a recent study supposedly showed that Britain’s education system had slipped from 4th worldwide to 14th when it came to science – so perhaps it’s the responsibility of more boffins to embrace popular culture, get us all interested, for the good of the nation. There can be little doubt more people would be aware that Stephen Hawking was the first man to combine general relativity with quantum theory to predict that black holes should emit radiation and evaporate, if he’d had a roll-on part in ‘Hollyoaks’ say. Likewise more people could identify Antony Hewish as the man who led the research group which discovered the first pulsar, if he’d dated Courtney Love for a couple of months. Conceivably we might all know that Bart Van Bok suggested that small dark globules of interstellar gas and dusk are collapsing to form new stars if he’d been a member of G-Unit (admittedly this man is in fact dead, but what the hell, never did Tupac or Biggie’s career any harm) And maybe, just maybe, more people would tune in to dear old Sir Patrick Moore if his body was covered in tattoos a la David Beckham. The fact that I had to Google ‘astrophysicists’ to find these first three men and their achievements should only go further to proving this point.

Na. You know what? Na. Forget that last bit. Screw the good of the nation. I don’t want my scientists in the public eye, on chat shows, mixing with celebrities; I want them indoors, researching things and discovering stuff. Complicated stuff, stuff that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend, because that’s what that’s what they do, it’s what they’re good at and it’s why I love them. Never mind image or fashion, proper scientists should be too busy to go for a decent haircut, let alone to Lady Gaga’s after show party or whatever. A good man or woman of science should never be found in a copy of ‘Heat’ (unless it’s some massive textbook on the intricacies of thermodynamics – whatever that is.) Equally when it comes to learning about the solar system, personally I’d prefer to hear it from someone who can’t demonstrate exactly how bright the sun is simply by flashing their Hollywood smile. Sure Patrick Moore’s getting on a bit, he isn’t ‘cool’ and he doesn’t have the friendly easy-going presenting style of his predecessor, but you know what, A lifetime of presenting ‘The Sky at Night’ will do that to you. Let’s see how chirpy and enthusiastic Brian is after staying up to look at stars all night every night for fifty three years. Bottom line, if I want to know how to give my hair that just washed sheen all day long; I’ll ask Professor Brian Cox. If I want to know the average lifecycle of one of Jupiter’s moons (or where to find the Blue Switch Palace in Super Mario Bros) I’ll ask Sir Patrick Moore.