Not even drop-dead good looks and boyish enthusiasm could save Brian Cox from the first law of science on TV. No matter how hard you try, you can’t make cutting-edge astrophysics intelligible for the scientifically illiterate. After all, even the scientifically literate barely have a clue what’s going on; and if they do, they don’t always agree. So throughout Wonders of the Solar System, I found myself saying: “I’m sure this is a-m-aaazing, Brian, but I haven’t a clue why.”
Horizon: Seeing Stars (BBC2), showcasing the world’s best telescopes, got round this problem by not bothering to explain the difficult stuff, the basic message of the voiceover being: “This is all really important but I’m not going to say why, as you won’t understand, so just sit back and enjoy the pictures because they are stunning.” This no-nonsense approach was surprisingly effective because it lived up to its billing: the images were breathtaking.
We started high in the Chilean Atacama desert, where astronomers in dodgy sweaters spend the nights staring into a 23 tonne mirror that magnifies the night sky by a factor of 4 billion. The blurred speck on their screen was apparently a black hole at the centre of our galaxy that measures 44 million km across. Meanwhile, 60,000ft above the US, a $1bn Boeing 747 with a telescope cooled to –275C observes Frosty Leo, a distant nebula that is apparently likely to give up the secrets of how stars are born.
And that’s just the start. Then there’s Alma, another telescope in the Atacama searching for submillimetre radiation, Hubble in a near-Earth orbit and the yet-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope that will observe the beginnings of the universe from 1m miles above Earth. My favourite, though, was Antares, a telescope situated 3.5km beneath the sea that’s been looking for cosmic rays that have come from outer space and have already passed through Australia and the centre of the Earth. In four years, they haven’t seen a single one; nor are they at all sure what a cosmic ray is, though it’s assumed to be an intergalactic messenger. Though not a very eloquent one. The Antares team aren’t at all disheartened by their failure; they just think they need a bigger and better telescope.
This turns out to be every astronomer’s answer to everything. Give us better technology, they say, and we’ll come up with better answers. Though not necessarily to the questions they thought they were going to ask. Which is fine by me, as it wasn’t entirely clear what questions they had been planning to ask anyway. Beyond explaining the origins of the universe. Still, for all that, it was fabulous TV that left me feeling much better informed. If, almost certainly, none the wiser.
The second law of science on TV says any attempt to make a subject more accessible by turning it into a gameshow will end in disaster. Safebreakers (Sky1) sounded promising, a sexier version of Robot Wars in which two teams compete to build a machine to get past various obstacles to a safe containing £5,000. It turned out to be the dullest programme imaginable as two-thirds of it was devoted to trying to create some drama out of a group of blokes building a fire engine out of an old car and a few odds and sods.
In the last third of the programme the engines had to put out a couple of fires – including a small first-storey blaze in a concrete shell, twice described by the narrator as a “towering inferno” – in order to obtain the codes to open the safe. The climax came with the men having to run up three flights of stairs to work out the combination for the lock. As there were only six possible combinations, this didn’t turn out to be very difficult. For the record, the Droids beat the Recovery and Rescue (RR) team; though if I had been one of the RR blokes, I’d be feeling dead pissed off, as the Droids had originally wired their pump back to front and couldn’t fix it without the help of the programme’s engineer. Left to their own devices, they wouldn’t have been able to put out a match.
Back for a new series, Only Connect (BBC4) is the mirror-opposite of Safe Breakers; a show based on Radio 4’s Round Britain Quiz, though with the smugness removed, in which contestants have to find the link between related objects. It feels as if it ought to be dull, but is actually rather fun. Unless you’re an astronomer who prefers to answer questions they haven’t been asked.