Maths, Science, TV

Disappointing Horizons

This post is provided as an appendix to the proceeding post, which will discuss fractals – a topic mentioned in last week’s Horizon.

I introduce this list by saying: sadly, I can’t say that the rest of the current series of Horizon has been as good as “The Secret You1.

  • Why Do We Talk?” spends an hour pointing out: “Hey, you know that language thing, it’s so weeeeird. Innit?”. When the programme concludes I was left with the feeling that my time would have been better spent on reading a book or meeting a friend, or even just eating biscuits. The programme demonstrates evidence that language is innate, but that doesn’t come as too much of a surprise, and nothing is taken away except a vague idea that language is complicated, innit.
  • Who’s Afraid of a Big Black Hole?” is not, surprisingly, a documentary focusing on Baltimore. Instead it’s supposed to be about black holes – and it is – but amongst shots of the ubiquitous talking head that is Michio Kaku, it suffers from the same problem as the next episode in this list.
  • How Long is a Piece of String?” was on last week2. It had the characteristics of an interesting episode – a maths and physics based topic3 and a catchy title, all whilst featuring my beloved Marcus du Sautoy. Unfortunately, unlike “The Secret You”, rather than presenting – that honour fell to the gormless Alan Davies – Marcus was only on for the first 15 minutes. Not by luck, those happened to be the only good minutes in the programme 4. The problem with this programme is that the producers did not know who to aim it at. Quantum physics – to which the episode quickly turned – is extremely hard5, yet every few minutes an entirely new concept is introduced, a few words said about it, and then it’s followed by some CGI. The length could be infinite! You make the length by measuring it! Things can exist in two – no, infinity – places at once! Anything is possible! Overall, nothing is learned – only confusion is experienced. I was watching this episode with my mother: she gained nothing, and I – already having an understanding of the physics involved – gained nothing. What’s annoying is that although quantum physics is hard, it is possible to explain it to the less educated audience – by taking small chunks, and explaining those chunks slowly and thoroughly. This episode, sadly, failed.


Footnotes:
  1. Which itself isn’t the highest bar to pass. 
  2. It seems like the episodes to avoid this series have been those ending in question marks. 
  3. None of this pathetic ‘linguistics’ shite. No, linguistics can be quite good actually. 
  4. I shall discuss those in the next post. 
  5. Richard Feynman, one of my favourite scientists, supposedly said: “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”. Now although that’s probably a slightly exaggeration, it’s not far from the truth. 

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