BBC Science Cafe and other things

Last week Patrick Sutton and I recorded an episode of BBC Science Cafe, a weekly BBC Radio Wales show hosted by Adam Walton. The show was broadcast earlier this evening, and you can listen to it here – at least for about a month after first broadcast (and probably only in the UK).

There’s also a little clip of Patrick explaining gravity and gravitational waves using an analogy including a trampoline, ants and bowling balls. Patrick, who is head of the Gravitational Physics group here in Cardiff, is excellent at describing the fairly complex topic of general relativity in very easy-to-understand language.

Most of the radio and TV coverage of topical science tends to be short news stories, generally lasting a few minutes. For example, I contribute fairly to the morning and evening regularly on BBC Radio Wales shows, which are normally around 4 minutes long. And on the BBC Wales evening news bulletin on the evening of 11th February, they played a pre-recorded item including interviews with members of the group, and then came to the reporter, Steffan Messenger, and myself for a 1:20 round-up.  Talking about complex subjects concisely, and normally in a fairly light manner, is an interesting challenge (and one I relish) – mostly because you have to work out what not to include, rather than what to actually talk about. It normally means missing out on most of details, which is a shame because there are often some really nice stories in the details of any scientific discovery.

That’s why it’s really nice to sometimes talk about things in greater length. There aren’t many shows that do that with science (or many other subjects) – radio and TV programmes are often split into a series of short “magazine” items. But there are exceptions. Clearly, there’s things like Horizon, which are normally hour long documentaries, and some of the BBC Natural World documentaries, but neither of those are often particularly topical. The Radio Four programme BBC Inside Science is a half hour show that covers a handful of topics in that time in reasonable depth – normally related to something in the news that month.

More locally, Pythagoras Trousers is a weekly science radio show for which I present a monthly astronomy item – this is normally a roughly 15 minute chat with an astronomer about something topical, though we often include a news roundup and an observing forecast. The extended versions of these programmes are uploaded to our Cardiff Physics Engagement blog.

On TV, there’s obviously The Sky at Night, a show that I’ve had significant involvement with over the years (though less so recently). The programme normally focuses on one topic, such as a particular planet or phenomenon, with a series of interviews and other items telling one coherent story. When Patrick Moore was presenting the programme, he used to try to insist on “one subject, one guest” – though we normally managed to make it a bit more dynamic. Over the years, as more of us were involved on and off screen, and later with the new production and lead presenting team, the programme started to include more separate items, thought still following a common thread.

One of the most interesting and intellectually stimulating aspects of working on The Sky at Night was trying to stitch the various bits together into a cohesive story. The hook is often something topical, but there’s the flexibility in half an hour to cover the basics (for the complete newcomers, and as a reminder to others), cover a bit of technical detail (for those already familiar with astronomy), explain why it’s all so interesting, and then go into the new results.

The same is true of Science Cafe (to finally bring this post back on topic). It is a full half hour during which, like The Sky at Night, it’s possible to cover the basic concepts, explain why it’s interesting, describe a few of the technical aspects (in a public-friendly way) and discuss the main results. But it’s really good fun to have the ability to take time to talk about a subject at length, rather than having to do all of the above in a couple of minutes. Adam, the presenter, threads the discussion together with a series of questions, and I’m always impressed with how well-researched the programme is. You should listen!