Thursday, 28 March 2013

Guardsmen and Bunny Ears

Melvyn Bragg and three scientists were discussing water today on "In Our Time" (BBC R4). In the preview on the Today programme Melvyn mentioned that water was the second commonest molecule in the (I think) universe. Today presenter Sarah Montague jumped in to ask what the commonest is. Melvyn admitted he was a bit thrown by that but promised that he would make it one of his first questions at five past nine, turning a difficult moment into a plug.

The Today programme's co-presenter Evan Davies quickly pointed out that Nitrogen was the commonest. Sarah M then queried whether this was the commonest element or molecule. A good question. All seemed keen to show they had some knowledge of science - but probably only revealed their lack of it. On the programme it was confirmed that Nitrogen is the commonest element - but molecule? I'm not sure the confusion was cleared up.  But there is a greater confusion: are we discussing our world, our own solar system, or the universe? Recent probes have emphasised that we have not travelled far at all so far - just rephrase that would you, Ed - um, up to now, even in this possibly minor solar system.

Terms are rarely properly defined and confusion reigns. Words seem inadequate to describe science. We soon descend into talk of atoms bonding with "bunny ears", of guardsmen, of piles of oranges. This sort of topic probably needs TV images - but then instead of attempts at rational discussion we would no doubt get pretty pictures and endless repetition.

Was I the only one to be distracted rather than helped by the repeated "bunny ears"? Was I wrong to notice the "I know this is difficult but are you still with me?" upspeak? I liked the accents, though. Was there a New Zealand one there, or have I been watching too much crecket?

Anyway, Japanese history next week, much more comfortable for Melvyn - and many listeners.

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