It is precisely because it is fashionable for Americans to know no science, even though they may be well educated otherwise, that they so easily fall prey to nonsense. They thus become part of the armies of the night, the purveyors of nitwittery, the retailers of intellectual junk food, the feeders on mental cardboard, for their ignorance keeps them from distinguishing nectar from sewage. ~ Isaac Asimov, "The Armies of the Night"
I was watching How the Universe Works on the Science Channel the other morning when I was startled by their depiction of the Big Bang. What startled me is that they got it right! I'll explain how in a moment, but it was so notable that it brought to mind the things that they mess up on science and history programs. After the debacle that was the Cosmos reboot, I figured science television (and by extension, historical TV) was pretty much dead. Now I have a little hope, but there are still lots of things that need to be fixed.
1. The Big Bang was not a smoke and flame filled explosion. This is what surprised me the other day. In Universe, the event was shown as a sudden expansion of a sort of hazy ball. There was no flame and smoke and no kaboom, unlike the Cosmos depiction, which Neil Tyson should have screamed about to the crowd of executive producers. Let's face it: no one was there when it happened, but it is postulated that from nothing we suddenly got a hot rapidly expanding mess of subatomic stuff that would congeal into atoms, stars, galaxies, and us. Bravo for someone getting right, but will others do it too?
2. You cannot hear explosions in space. Is anyone else sick and tired of colliding planetoids making crashing and booming sounds as they collide? Supernovae certainly put out a hell of a shock wave, but you don't hear it kapowie like a Mythbusters' “big boom.” Space is nearly empty, science show producers, and you're not going to hear “big booms”.
3. For goodness sakes, pronounce stuff correctly. Evidently, the narrators of these programs never actually watch any of the expert interviews. Did no one during the recording session actually listen to the narrator? Those are the only explanations for a narrator pronouncing the Sicilian city Syracuse as “Sire-a-cuse”. I mean, I can understand accenting the wrong syllable once in a while, or having trouble with some obscure member of the Period Table, but “Sire-a-cuse”? Really?
4. Either update the program or stop showing it when it gets out-of-date due to new information. The other day, I was watching a dinosaur program when they dropped some information that didn't seem right. I checked and the program first aired in 1999. In fact, it's unusual to find any paleological show newer than the early 2000's. True some stuff is still accurate, but there's stuff happening all the time in science and historical research that deserves to be mentioned. One of the funniest examples of a half-hearted attempt at an update involved the Tut caper (see the postscript to the article). So maybe the answer is just dump the old program and create new ones.
5. Stop showing flaming meteors hitting the ground. One of two things happens to a meteoroid on the way down to the ground. One, it burns up and possibly explodes in the air, sometimes with significant affect (Tunguska comes to mind). Two, it lands on the ground where it's hot to the touch but not nearly on fire. In fact, a meteor crashed through a car's gas tank some years ago; another clonked a lady on the shoulder more recently. But just showing rocks big enough to smash your skull into little bits is not as visually impressive as a flaming rock that big hitting someone's Buick.
But there's a big thing these channels need to do to demonstrate that science and history are their primary aims. Dump the “unexplained”, “UFO landed on my lawn”, “aliens gave us everything” shows. Simply put, most of this stuff, if not all of it, is pure junk. I mean some guy goes nuts over an elongated skull being an obvious dead alien, despite the fact that it's well known that some groups made a practice of performing this “beautification”. I'm sick of Bigfoot and all his brethren. I am tired of “unexplained” events that have been explained. If I have to hear that Atlantis has been found yet again, I may get sick.
And don't even get me started about the Bermuda Triangle.
I'm a bit more torn about the “near science” shows, the chief of which is Through the Wormhole. Fringe science has occasionally turned out to be the real thing. Quantum mechanics was thought to be pretty out there stuff back in its early days, but the theory made testable predictions that proved accurate, most people came around. That being said, some guy going on and on about his wacko theory about how time is shaped funny and then finishing with “Of course, I haven't done the calculations yet,” is a colossal waste of video tape.
There are a lot of interesting theories out there, but it would be nice to give voice to the dissenters to the latest day-glo slinky theory of matter.
At any rate, I have to hope that the Discovery-Science-History axis will mend their ways soon and get rid of endless marathons of garbage science, reality shows, and outdated re-runs. I realize that they're taking the cheap way out, as well as going for the lowest common denominator (read: person who really doesn't like science or history but enjoys naked people wandering around and cussing at each other).
On the other hand, since I watch little beyond the science and history programming, their continued dumbing-down would have one effect: I'd have to quit watching TV. Which would give me more time to write stuff.
Now that should scare anyone.