Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The tourture of BBC science shows

So over the last two days I have spent two hours of my life watching science documentaries on the BBC iPlayer.
The first 'Wonders of the solar system: The sun' aired initially on Sunday night, the second 'Horizon: Is everything we know about the universe wrong?' was on last night at 9pm.

Now I really like the BBC, I'm happy to pay the hundred odd pound annual subscription and I watch almost all of my television through the iPlayer. This isn't me joining the (often pathetic) throngs that can't see the public service provided.

What it is though, is a request to stop wasting my bloody time by claiming that a show would inform me, or answer my questions when it quite simply doesn't. The few snippets of useful information in both those shows combined could have made a ten minute short. 15 if you wanted to get all arty.

I won't waste too much of my time talking about 'Wonders' as it's already stolen an hour of my life, but it basically amounted to Professor Brian Cox travelling the world, pointing a camera at the sky and going 'wow'. 'Wow!' he said looking at a solar eclipse. 'Incredible!' he exclaimed, sailing down the Amazon. 'Magnificent!' he gawped, at the northern lights. Maybe that was the point of the entire show, to make people gawp. I find it much better to gawp at facts that you wouldn't otherwise believe, rather than pretty pictures.

Now horizon was marginally better. It could have thrown a dog turd at me through my monitor and I would have thought the same (think of the technical achievement!). It remains though, that all of the actual information provided could be explained, in quite easy to understand language, during a cigarette break. I know, I tried it. It goes a little something like this...

The standard model of physics explains how the universe came into being. There was a big bang, then the universe grew consisting firstly of energy, then after a while matter formed. This matter settled down into stars, which clustered into galaxies, which gave us the universe we inhabit.
Some observations don't quite fit with the standard model. The first of these is the relatively uniform temperature of the universe (found out by looking at the cosmic microwave background, or CMB, a view of the universe 13bn light years away or 13bn light years ago), which is inconsistent with a universe still growing from an explosion. To get round this, a principle called 'inflation' was dreamed up where the universe grew from the explosion, then stopped for a bit. Then when the temperature was roughly even, it grew again. We aren't sure why.
This still doesn't quite explain our observations though. There isn't enough observed mass in galaxies to explain the stars rotate around the centre. Rather than the rate of rotation slowing the further from the centre of a galaxy you go, it remains constant. To account for the extra mass, we use something called dark matter which should be everywhere, and actually outnumbers actual matter by a ratio of 5:1. There is a guy in a lab underground looking for it, he has to be underground so that more common particles don't interfere with his detectors. We aren't completely sure what it is, but it might be something to do with supersymmetry.
Even this doesn't explain it completely, the universe is expanding faster than we expect it do. We aren't quite sure why, but we have come up with an idea of 'dark energy' which exists in vacuums. Effectively the energy of nothing. When we factor this in to our standard model, along with the dark matter and the inflationary principle, we get a working model of the universe...
Almost. Now, after studying the CMB for a bit longer another scientist has found that some galaxies are rushing together in groups. This doesn't work as part of our inflationary model. The concept has been called 'dark flow'.  It may be something to do with a multi-verse, that is, our universe is just one of many.
In order to get that information, that took me about 15 minutes to write (and as mentioned a cigarette break to explain). I had to sit through a balloon being blown up (pneumatically thankfully) about 15 times, what appeared to be a close up of a match about 40 times, and the phrase 'it started with a bang' about 7 million times (ok I exaggerate, but only on the last one).

I understand that most viewers don't want in depth science coverage, but that was a full hour of airtime! Why not just condense the sort of stuff written above into half an hour, and then put a half hour follow on show on BBC4 or something, for those that want to actually learn something?

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