Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Tue 15th Aug, 2006

Science in the land of the stupid

I watched two episodes of "The Elegant Universe", an explanation of String Theory based on the book of the same name. Now, I have the book. It does a good job of combining the history and the mathematical aspects of the theory, as well as giving you some ways of visualising what these 9-dimensional waves of vibrating energy are. Granted, it doesn't go any further than a few simple equations and diagrams and lots of simple analogies. But it talks about branes, tearing operations, Calabi-Yau Spaces and eigenstates. It isn't a textbook but it isn't a picture book.

The TV program, on the other hand, seems to be trying to substitute nifty graphics repeated over and over and bloody over again for actual scientific explanation. The first half of the second program was essentially rehashing the territory explored by the first - that a theory that unifies the gravitation of the General Relativity Theory and the Electromagnetic, Nuclear Strong and Nuclear Weak forces is difficult. Various scientists are green-screened onto postmodernist interiors and overlayed with the flashes of light and ripple effects we've come to associate with modern movie CGI that's trying to look High Tech. Gone are any attempts to explain, for example, what Maxwell's equations mean - despite the fact that they're apparently "amazingly simple". A few tiny little hints, like the analogy of a dimension that we can't see being like a wire turning from one dimensional (according to a distant observer) to two-dimensional (according to an ant on the wire), are quickly glossed over without spending any time labouring the point. They even had a great example of quantum superposition but completely failed to explain what the hell it was. The whole episode left me profoundly dissatisfied.

I realised what was going on when watching a past episode of Mythbusters. Suddenly there was this big sign on the screen that said (I kid you not) "WARNING: SCIENCE CONTENT". Apparently, 'science' is a hazardous material like saturated fats or mild cartoon violence - we need warnings on programs that might contain this 'science' thing in case our kids watch it and grow up warped and twisted. The science they were explaining wasn't particularly exciting either - from memory it was something about the way they've tested lots of people and found that random oscillation at about 0.2 Hz is the best for making people seasick. It wasn't "Remember that due to General Relativity the bullet was slightly heavier while it was moving, but the extra mass is negligible," or "You can see from this Feynman Diagram that the bullet actually appears over here, beside this potted plant, rather than in the gelatin bust of Grant Imahara". So why the big warning?

The answer, to me, is quite simple. American TV has hit the lowest point it can get in catering to stupid people, and is starting to dig for further subterranean audiences. This applies to cartoons, for instance: The Simpsons used to be infuriating for its praise of the stupid (Homer) and the malcontent (Bart) over the peacemaker (Marge) and the intelligent (Lisa). Now it's a positive star compared to the crassness of Family Guy. The first "Tripping The Rift", while Not Exactly Safe For Work, was amusing - the latest series is gratuitous tits and a cast like Big Brother: chosen not to work with eachother. (Incidentally, it is cogent to note here that, once again, we have the formula of the boorish, stupid male characters completely overshadowing their intelligent, sensible female counterparts. The women usually end up having to rescue the guys after the latter's hairbrained and pig-headed schemes inevitably cock up. When the guys succeed, it's usually because of random chance rather than actual design, and they then verbally dominate the women because of this apparent triumph. I can't even begin to imagine the harm being done to people - not just kids - seeing these role models.) And these are the "new thing", the "hit shows" that are only going to make way for something even more gross and crass next season.

US shows - even documentaries, it would seem - have thrown away any attempt to educate their audiences and have gone for flashy graphics and faux learnedness. I can't even begin to imagine the kind of confusion that comes out of people watching these programs without knowing the underlying science first. "So what was that "Elegant Universe" program about, Bob?" "Well, Jim, it seemed to be a bunch of guys all drinking from the same glass." "Sounds gay, Bob." "Well, they did say it was an alternate universe - maybe it was a gay one." "And that's it? Gay universes?" "Seems to me that way, Jim. Other than that I didn't understand a gosh-durned thing."

Some people might say at this juncture, "Well, you can't expect ordinary people to understand the intricacies of dimension folding and world sheets if these mathematicians and physicists can't even prove that String Theory is correct." Yes, perfectly correct. So why make the programme in the first place? Either you set out to educate people, or you don't. I'm not saying they'll get a Doctorate at the end of the episode, but you can at least try to teach them something about the actual subject matter! "The Elegant Universe" is educational if you like protracted, collaged and minimalist explanations of Albert Einstein's life, for instance. But as an explanation of String Theory it's about as useful as stopping a bullet with a finger in the barrel.

I'd say my criticism of American TV is not alone, though, if Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary's previous storyline about Reality TV shows tearing up the moral fabric of society is anything to go by.

P.S. I've made a minor edit to the bracketed diatribe on the standard modern comedy formula these days. Apparently, my re-read at 1AM today didn't correctly elucidate the slight nuances of meaning that were in my brain but weren't there in the text.

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