Friday, July 27, 2007

"Atom" on BBC Four

BBC Four showed part one of its Quantum Mechanics documentary last night. There was a lot to like. The presenter, Professor Jim Al-Khalili of Surrey University, had an easiness of touch only slightly marred by his uncanny resemblance to Captain Luc Picard. A bit too much gesturing, Professor - but otherwise fine.

The target audience seemed to be BBC Two Newsnight Presenter: intelligent, arts-trained, people-oriented, only the haziest idea about physics. Communicating QM to such an audience is like explaining the principles of powered flight to New Guinea aboriginals who have never before encountered modernity.

Presenter: “At the beginning of modern flight there were the conservatives, who wished to emulate the familiar flapping flight of birds ...”

Shows picture of crude flapping ornithopter crashing into sea.

“... while the revolutionaries explored a wholly unintuitive concept of fixed wings and engines.”

Shows picture of Boeing 747 screaming into take-off.

“How did they stay up? The principles of powered flight were deeply mysterious to ordinary people who wished to visualise the mechanisms ...”

Shows blackboard with fluid dynamics equations, but doesn’t explain any of the symbols or what any of it means.

“... but it indisputably worked, so the revolutionaries won.”

So the viewer still hasn’t a clue about Quantum Mechanics, but does know some of the names of the protagonists in that great soap opera that was 1920s physics. Better than nothing ... roll on episode 2!

NOTE: I truly believe there is space for a programme which does try to communicate what the wave function is all about, Quantum Field Theory and the Standard Model, while not being part of an Open University course. The old Horizon would have tackled it. Being as it’s BBC Four and doesn’t have to make concessions, could the BBC be brave enough to try again for those people who do know some science and maths?