Comment »Posted on Wednesday 17 September 2008 at 6:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Just A Review

Coincidentally tying into yesterday’s post on Science Debate 2008, the new series of Horizon was kicked off last night by speaking to “leading scientists” about the scientific knowledge a President requires. What did they have to say for themselves?

Initially, not much. It seems they had all been bundled into a darkened room only to have spotlights shined into their blinking, deer-in-the-headlight eyes. I’m not entirely sure why the BBC chose to shoot their guests in this manner – its a toss up between wanting to appear “edgy”, and just being too cheap to build a set.

A few uncomfortable introductions: Richard Dawkins, James Watson (one of the discoverers of DNA), and others. Cut to the scientists scribbling random equations on blackboards. Oh good. Right, a bit of history: Kennedy was a good friend to scientists, who in turn helped out America by sending men to to the moon. Everyone else since then has been rubbish. Especially George Bush.

More meaningless equations, this time floating in the sky between buildings. What do they mean? It doesn’t matter, it’s SCIENCE! Really, does the BBC thing we have such short attention spans these days that if we don’t see something shiny every few seconds we’ll lapse into a coma of boredom?

Six minutes in, and it’s time for the programme to start. Apparently a President must understand e = mc2 in order to be able to push the nuke button. Funny, I thought it just took a finger – a thumb even, in an emergency. Oh no, turns out that the President is “shadowed by a uniformed officer”, holding a case full of launch codes.

Sorry, where were we? Right, science, but not too much science. Richard Garwin, designer of the first hydrogen bomb, shows us how how much enriched uranium is needed to start a nuclear reaction in a power station (yes, we’re on power stations now, do keep up), then mutters under his breath for a few seconds whilst working out how long the reaction would take – one millionth of a second. Beaming, he says “and you can calculate all that yourself!”

No! Not calculation! The science has gone too far! A horror-movie style musical stab plays as we cut quickly over the evil, evil numbers on the blackboard. The monster of mathematics has reared its ugly head, and we must move on sharpish before it devours us all.

There’s some nonsense about detecting Iran’s nuclear progress, with former CIA agent Robert Baer telling us that ninjas and James Bond will not be coming in and shutting them down. That’s not the way that world works. Yes, ninjas and James Bond were the actual words he used.

Oh right, science. Well, a President must also know about stem cell research. Sir Paul Nurse guides us through his laboratory full of duplicated equipment: thanks to the ban on federally funded research, one set of machines can be used for stem cell research, and the other (privately funded) can’t. The are even hooked up to separate electrical meters, so no American tax dollars go to those filthy anti-life scum. What does a President need to know? Some people don’t like stem cells, it seems. They even have signs saying so. Better watch out for them.

Physics, biology – isn’t there something else on our list we need to tick off? Ah: chemistry. We’re reminded of that “dreaded of science class icons, the periodic table” – apparantly “little could appear less interesting.” Really? Someone better tell the Periodic Table of Videos to shove off, because Horizon is back on the case.

Chemistry is all to do with photosynthesis. That’s what a President needs to know. Sorry, sorry, did I say photosynthesis? Silly old me, I meant climate change. Oh, but now we’re back to nuclear power. I guess we didn’t cover that in enough detail earlier.

At the end of the program, what does a President really need to know about science? The answer, it seems, is to choose a science advisor. Good to know. If you like, you can watch The President’s Guide to Science online with BBC iPlayer until next Tuesday, but frankly, I wouldn’t bother.


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