So, Hentzau! What is your beef with Brian Cox?
Brian EXPLETIVE DELETED Cox. Let me tell you about Brian EXPLETIVE DELETED Cox.
Actually, does Brian Cox have much cultural penetration outside of the UK? For those not in the know, Brian Cox is the presenter of some very popular high-budget science programs for the BBC – Wonders of the Universe and Wonders of the Solar System, amongst others – and does a lot of work to popularise science amongst the general public. Brian Cox has a Ph.D from the University of Manchester, is currently a professor at that same university and has done a fair wodge of research into particle physics, so he’s got the credentials and experience to back up most of what he says on those shows. He also used to be part of the 90s pop group D:Ream, which had several chart hits including the number one “Things Can Only Get Better” which New Labour co-opted as the theme tune for their landslide election victory in 1997. So I’m actually not joking or exaggerating in any way when I say that Brian Cox is quite literally a rock star physicist, and that this makes him really good at everything to do with science communication.
There is nothing wrong with the concept of a Brian Cox per se, and I do admire a lot of the work the guy does. Explaining science in a coherent and understandable fashion can be tricky at the best of times, a problem which is only exacerbated by the vast majority of scientists being utterly bloody terrible at communicating their ideas in anything other than the incredibly specific jargon that pertains to their particular area of research. Finding one who is relatively young, quite good-looking and who has charm, an obvious passion for the subject and the ability to string two sentences together without tripping over their own tongue is kind of like finding a unicorn. As a result of this and his move into broadcasting over the last decade Brian Cox has probably done more to get the general public enthused about science and astronomy than anyone since Carl Sagan, and he should be applauded for this.
So I guess I’m not dissing Brian Cox here so much as I am his television shows, Wonders of the Universe/Solar System. In these shows Brian Cox talks about all of the interesting and fascinating things that we can find in outer space, from moons to planets to stars to black holes to galaxies, and he does this with the aid of some frankly very impressive CGI sequences to illustrate the point. Never mind that Brian Cox is a particle physicist and has said more than a few things about astrophysics that were flat-out wrong; this is fantastic science communication and the sort of thing I want to see more of on TV.
Sadly the producers of the Wonders series do not agree with me because these sequences are really quite marginalised in favour of cramming as many pictures of Brian Cox into the show as possible. Brian Cox in a helicopter! Brian Cox in the desert! Brian Cox in the jungle! Brian Cox on a glacier! Brian Cox watching turtles on the beach! The BBC spends quite a lot of time and money sending Brian Cox and a film crew to some of the most remote and spectacular places on Earth so that they can talk about the Hubble Deep Field or whatever, and I’m not entirely sure what the logical connect between the two is. Certainly an image of Brian Cox in cold weather gear standing in the middle of the tundra is more striking than Brian Cox sitting in a chair in a comfortable academic office, but when he whips out a photo of a star field and starts explaining all of the interesting things in it I kind of have to wonder whether hauling him all the way out there was really worth the effort, since neither location really has any relevance to what he was ultimately talking about.
And the annoying thing is that these bits where Brian Cox stands on top of a mountain and looks contemplative while a camera mounted in a helicopter slowly circles around him are actually quite detrimental to the content of what he’s saying. Such artificially dramatic visuals demand an equally artificially dramatic commentary, and this is where Brian Cox’s passion for the subject gets the better of him as he delivers a voiceover that’s astonishingly thin on actual scientific content because it’s so gushingly frothy. There used to be an excellent parody of the Wonders shows on youtube (it still exists on other video sites) that cuts closer to the bone than its author probably intended. If you pare down what Brian Cox is actually saying to its absolute bare bones in a search for scientific meaning, then what you end up with is enthusiastic yet ultimately meaningless burbling about how Brian Cox thinks the universe is f**king awesome.
The hell of it is that there’s actually quite a good TV show to be made out of sending Brian Cox to uniquely interesting spots on the Earth’s surface. If he’d talk in a little bit more detail about where he was rather than trying to conjure up a tenuous connection between it and some location out in space that couldn’t be more alien if it tried, you’d end up with a fairly gripping program about earth sciences. Or they could do a show where people ask him idiotic questions and he gives the answers that scientists actually want to give but can’t because they have to be tactful1. Or any one of a hundred other things. But no, people won’t be interested in a passionate guy talking about the subject he loves in an accessible fashion, so they put him at the centre of these convoluted visual shots while bombastic music plays and reduce his commentary to so much dribble and goo.
And this is the future of the science documentary, apparently. I’m not saying you can’t make them visually flashy – I hardly want all science documentaries to be done in the style of late-night Open University lecture programs — but there is a point where the flash starts to drown out the substance, and the Wonders programs are a very, very long way past it. I hate them so much, not least because everyone watched them and then asked me about what Brian Cox said in his stupid commentary because he hadn’t gone into any kind of substantive detail about what was going on due to being too busy standing on top of mountains looking very photogenic. Outside of his TV programs I love the guy. In them, though, I find his presentational style to be utterly insufferable. That’s my beef with Brian Cox.
1. Watching Brian Cox lay into idiots while he’s sat behind the wheel of a car is approximately seven thousand times more interesting to me than watching him gush about Enceladus while he’s sitting on top of an iceberg.
“A football pitch… that’s on Mars” is one of my favourite popular science phrases.
That video has some absolutely cracking lines (“If you think helicopters can fly into space… then you’re fucking *wrong*”) and I’m very sad the BBC got it taken down from youtube. It’s a spot-on parody.
Sadly this affects most history documentaries as well. There is an obvious temptation to go overblown and dramatic because someone thinks otherwise the general populace won’t find it interesting, but there are more than enough ways of talking about cool history stuff while hedging your bets and saying “we don’t know” or “it could be this, or it could be that”. Part of the fun of history is the stuff that we can’t know for certain or can’t quite pin down.
Yeah there’s definitely a trend in a lot of modern documentaries no matter what they’re about – I think I saw one the other day which was all like “How smart are dogs really? We’ve come to Jamaica to find out!” and then the pretty young expert (who had a degree in zoology or something but was really only there because she was pretty) did some rubbish experiment with dog biscuits while sitting on a beach drinking Malibu or something.
If I were a cynical man (perish the thought) I would suggest that the producers just wanted a free holiday at the license payers’ expense. Just flying around the world for less apparent reason than even a Top Gear special.
The only problem with your idea of a good earth sciences program is that it’s already been done, by David Attenborough. I think I’m thinking of “The Living Planet”. Maybe there is a case for re-doing something that’s 28 years old, though.
In general your description of this series, which I haven’t seen, sounds a lot like someone’s trying to re-create an Attenborough series, only focusing on the stars, which may be one of the few areas of popular science which (a) he hasn’t covered and (b) lends itself well to pretty pictures.
Thanks for the rant – very enjoyable! Also, love the site!
Cheers! And yeah, David Attenborough is all very well and good but he didn’t have the resources that have gone into making the Wonders programs. They even mixed in a little bit of ancient history at one point; the episode where Brian Cox went to the desert featured an ancient sun clock constructed by a civilization I’d never even heard of. I wanted to know more about that clock. I wanted to know about it more than I wanted to hear Brian Cox’s nebulous pronouncements on the nature of time.
(Maybe that’s just me, though. There’s definitely a certain amount of bias present in that I’m so familiar with what he *does* choose to talk about that I find the way he deals with it to be tremendously facile.).
But isn’t the point that “everyone watches these programmes and then [goes and asks about science]” a really good thing? The show is the kicking off point for getting them interested. I had a same reaction to the first Science of Discworld book. I suddenly went “Woah! Physics is awesome!” and went and read Stephen Hawking’s books and did Physics at A Level.
No, that part is great. The problem is when his explanation is so vague and woolly that people get the *wrong* impression about science and I have to spend time correcting them, which happens far more than you’d think. So he’s getting people fired up about science, which is great, but through his vagueness he’s also giving people the wrong impression about what science can and cannot deal with and what it does and does not understand. I’d hesitate before comparing him to CSI (nobody should be compared to CSI) but it’s the same sort of problem in that CSI has done a huge amount of damage to the popular perception of forensic science by making people think it can do actual, literal magic.
Fair enough, but if those people already didn’t know the science and they still don’t know the accurate science, but are generally more enthusiastic about science/cosmology then nothing has really been lost but the general attitude towards the discipline (which obvious affects funding etc) will improve.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand what you’re saying, but it just seems there’s more being gained than lost.
That Wonders has been quite successful in rousing the public’s enthusiasm for astronomy doesn’t mean it’s a perfect formula. I think toning down the spectacular visuals just slightly would do wonders (ha) for its actual grasp on hard facts. Mix them up a bit. Don’t go 100% helicopter shots of colourful scenery in HD. It does a lot for science education through dint of simply existing (and because Brian Cox is a natural at what he does and that comes through despite the ass-backwards presentation) but it could be *so much better*.