An ode to Cosmos and the difficult art of Science shows on TV

As a teenager in India, when I first saw the TV series Cosmos by cosmos: front coverCarl Sagan in the 1980s, I was enchanted, entranced and hooked. I loved every single minute of the broadcasts, found the material covered fascinating. It inspired me! Today I am a scientist and have to say that the show played a part in making Science appealing and sexy.

Some facts about Cosmos show that I wasn’t the only one spellbound: Cosmos won an Emmy and a Peabody award, it has been seen by more than 500 million people worldwide, is the most widely seen PBS TV series in the world broadcast in over 60 countries.

In my memory the show is perfect- the level at which it was pitched, the presentation style, the production values… all of it. In reality, it probably wasn’t perfect, just a damn good show.

I rejoice that there are shows on Science and Nature, on the other hand when I see some of these TV shows relating to Science aired now, I find that they simply don’t make the same impact (on me).

 –          The content and level seem unsuited to any age.

a)     Take for example the Horizon programme on the Higgs boson which aired in Feb 2012. The subject was marvelously topical and relevant, the presenters interviewed scientists at CERN and communicated very effectively the excitement relating to the Higgs. However, the show spent literally 2-3 minutes explaining what the Higgs boson is and in scientific terms what it means (apart from repeating that it would re-write Physics text books). In my view the show failed to explain to the public in any term what the Higgs boson is- a real pity.

b)     Another example, is the History of Maths series on the BBC that aired in March 2012. The work of some incredible scientists was featured and the romance attached to this was brought out to some extent. However, even with a PhD in Physics and some knowledge in Mathematics, it was not possible to understand the gist of any single piece of work mentioned. The worst aspect was that my friend who is not a scientist, turned to her novel after 10 minutes of watching, and later said: “it seems all mathematicians are either mad or go mad. Why would this attract anyone to be a mathematician”. Why indeed? Furthermore, unwittingly and probably unintentionally the programme seemed to communicate that individuals who are exceptionally gifted with mathematical talent and great intellect can be mathematicians. Giving rise to some speculation that if one is a young kid who isn’t considered exceptionally gifted, he/she needn’t bother thinking of a career in mathematics. Is that what popular Science shows should be communicating to young people?

-            The presentation style seems to be stuck in a time warp: narrator with hair flopping in the wind, travelling from one picturesque location to another, pausing to explain a scientific idea or claim and walking away while the camera pans to show us the scenic view- see some of Brian Cox’s shows. In all these years, have producers, artistic directors, writers, special effects wizards and all those who work in TV, not come up with any new formats for science shows? Are we to watch this style that has frankly been overused till boredom causes us to switch to the XFactor or Downton Abbey?

Regarding the above I must say that I have the greatest professional respect for the scientists such as Marcus du Sautoy, Brain Cox, Jim AlKhalili who are brilliant. I just feel the programmes could have been better.

In the above I have only mentioned shows that have won some acclaim and considered to be at least scientifically fairly accurate. I haven’t even touched on the shows where scientific authenticity is questionable. Furthermore, I wonder how many of these shows have a global audience? Science is universal and it can interest children, young people and adults anywhere in the world. Are these shows resonating with people the world over the way Cosmos did?

My opinions above may seem extreme, they are in fact borne of great agitation. I love Science and I really enjoy watching good shows on Science. I wait for them eagerly, anticipating something that will inspire and excite me. So, when the shows fail (to do that for me), I feel very disappointed and let down.

Another consideration is that the art of making documentaries is evolving too, combining technical prowess with artistic flair. There are many engrossing programmes from different disciplines. The best example is a brilliant documentary film of 2010, Nostalgia for the Light by the exiled Chilean film maker, Patricio Guzmán which brings together some very unlikely threads: Astronomers’ search for the origin of life through telescopes in Chile’s Atacama desert and the women still searching for the remains of their loved ones who dissappeared during Pinochet’s regime. This film is incredibly creative and beautiful, juxtaposing ideas in a thought provoking way I had never imagined. David Attenborough has presented many of the best loved Natural History programmes; Michael Moore’sBowling For Columbine”, is effective in exploring post 9/11 America even if it obviously plays to the gallery; Terry Pratchett’sLiving with Alzheimer’s”, is a thoughtful and moving reflection on the effects of living with Alzheimer’s.

Coming back to Science shows, obviously, some of the shows may not be pitched to someone my age, and hence I am not the target audience. This could explain why they fail to engage me. But I am loath to think that a programme produced by the highly acclaimed Horizon team at BBC, cant produce something decent for the average adult in the UK.

Why this rant?

If Cosmos could engage and inspire generations into Science globally in ‘80s can we not produce something with similar effect now?

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