Monday, 31 May 2010

Science on Television

There are a couple of series about science on television at present. "The Story of Science" fronted by a new face, Michael Mosley, on BBC2 on Tuesdays comes to an end this week, and I shall be interested to see what conclusions he arrives at. I hope there will not be some trite quasi-religious moral judgment. His emphasis has been on the influence of historical events, and the development of the necessary technology to make the scientific breakthroughs possible.

A new series "Genius of Britain" on Channel 4 is by contrast fronted by a series of familiar celebrities, each doing their bit for a particular character. David Attenborough did a good job for Christopher Wren, bringing out his influence on the founding of the Royal Society and his work in biology and astronomy before becoming the prominent architect of the period.

As someone who has studied the history of science intensively for many years I've found many little annoyances with these programmes, though perhaps I shouldn't complain too much, since they are aimed at a popular audience and are spreading the word about science which is all to the good.

For example in the BBC series Kepler's first law that the planets move in ellipses was mentioned, but not his equally important second and third laws. I presume they were omitted because they are of a more mathematical nature. In the Channel 4 programme the emphasis is on British science, but the studied omission of any mention of Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, and others of the giants on whose shoulders Newton stood seems rather pettily chauvinistic. The emphasis was also on Wren, Hooke, Boyle, Newton and Halley. Although the royal observatory was mentioned the first Astronomer Royal, Flamsteed, was air-brushed out of history. Other people active in the Invisible College at Oxford such as Wilkins and Wallis were similarly ignored.

The current fashion for the denigration of Newton was also apparent in the Channel 4 programme, in which the great man was presented to us by Stephen Hawking and Jim Al-Khalili. The allegation that Newton wrote his famous saying as a put-down, implying that Hooke was insignificant, and that he was behind the loss of the only portrait of Hooke, was presented as established fact, but is opinion, probably coming from Lisa Jardine's biography of Robert Hooke. Newton was also presented as an unsociable eccentric, but if so how could he possibly have been MP for Cambridge University and have held down the posts of Master of the Mint and President of the Royal Society if he was that bad at communication? And by the way, Principia Mathematica was written by Whitehead and Russell. The title of Newton's book is Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). The Natural Philosophy part of the title is important; that was what Science was known as at the time.

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