Stardust

I quite enjoy a good pop-science documentary. I love science because I love how the world all fits together and does its stuff in such an amazing, clever, jaw-dropping way. I love David Attenborough whispering next to wild Mountain Gorillas or explaining how duck-billed platypuses (platypi? platypodes? whatever!) sense electric currents. I love the literally gasp-aloud wildlife photography produced by the BBC in support of his documentaries. I love serious and not-so-serious attempts to explain quantum to me, or relativity, or the Big Bang. I love Stephen Jay Gould writing about evolution, or Dara O’Briain enthusing over mathematics and astronomy.

I admit it. My name is EBL and I love Stargazing Live.

Stargazing Live is one of the craziest notions for a TV show I have ever come across. It involves getting people to be excited about maths and physics, live on air, using technology that goes wrong all the time, to demonstrate brain-boggling facts, figures and concepts, while trying to look at stars in Britain, still live on air, regardless of the weather. It is invariably cloudy. And then doing it all over again for two more nights, usually prefacing the start of the next programme with “well, it finally cleared up beautifully in North Lanarkshire at 3 am so you could catch the tail end of the Pleiades shower”. Actually I love Stargazing Live and I love the BBC for producing it.

The main host is Brian Cox, with Dara supporting him because Brian needs someone who can (a) think on his feet in front of a camera, (b) knows how to present live and without a safety net, and (c) has the “common touch”. Brian Cox sets pulses racing with his combination of good looks, northern accent and boyish charm, allegedly. This all works very well when scripted and set to dramatic orchestration but he is less agile in a live environment and only really comfortable talking to other scientists – when his good qualities do really shine out across the universe. Dara, on the other hand, can put everyone at ease, be funny but also incredibly knowledgeable, and is keen as mustard in a less academic way. Both of them just fizz with enthusiasm. It is wonderful.

Brian’s rather annoying habit, from my point of view, is to refer to anything that is not hard science as “woo-woo”. He flutters his hands and speaks in a silly voice, as if this makes it acceptable. While I am all for having rational debate about the proven scientific theory supporting new discoveries, and while I am not a fan of a number of notions masquerading as science, such as homeopathy and creationism, I take some displeasure in a blanket dismissal of a spiritual interpretation of certain phenomena as if they cannot exist alongside hard science. It’s like saying you can only read the Encyclopedia Britannica and not John Donne, because the latter is speculative and speaks about men as if they were geography which is obviously untrue. Ironically both sources agree that no man is an island…

I admit I would use the EncBrit for some things and Donne for others. The key is knowing which is which. I would be happier of Brian widened his repertoire a little and didn’t take quite such a binary approach.

None of the above will ultimately stop me from watching the world’s most peculiar concept show whenever it is broadcast, taking me to the final frontier. It’s quirky, informative and sufficiently annoying to get me completely hooked.

Namaste.

Counterintuitive can be Counterproductive

Fiction is a mirror of the collective soul, and so the narratives we choose to tell and to read present an agreed version of reality we decide to share. Our shared version of reality becomes actuality, and we find it uncomfortable and inconvenient when other versions intrude. Sometimes those versions, underpinned by science, become submerged in the groundswell of opinion holding to our selected consensus.

In this week’s Prompt for the Promptless, Rarasaur suggests writing about counterintuition.

Counterintutition is a seemingly simple concept– it represents a truth that is contrary to common sense or the expectations of intuition.

Some examples of counterintuitive situations: You burn calories when you’re sleeping, flailing around is exactly the wrong thing to do when drowning, and beautifully speckled dart frogs can be poisonous to the touch.

On the same day, I read a guest post by Elizabeth Bear on Charlie Stross’s blog about how we think we know certain things, but it turns out we don’t. It was a prime example of how we have rewritten reality and made it counterintuitive as a result.

You probably think you know what a nuclear explosion sounds like.

You’re probably wrong.

The first footage released of hydrogen bomb tests was silent. A foley was dubbed in, using a standard explosion or cannon sound effect repeated to form the familiar continuous, ominous rumble. (If you think about this, it’s pretty obvious that the footage most of us are used to is dubbed, because audio and visual are simultaneous–and these films are shot from miles away from the blast site.)

Collectively we have made the world of known scientific learning one of mystery and furious, opinionated debate. It irritates my Inner Pedant that space battles on TV are chock-full of explosions. They claim in space no one can hear you scream, and they are right. They just don’t demonstrate it so everyone carries on thinking space and vacuums transmit noise just like air.

Equally it’s a guilty pleasure to watch a space battle where not all the ships are oriented the same way up.

More importantly though, if we make scientific discovery a matter of opinion instead of an accepted best description of reality (until we get a better theory – because that is how science works), then we end up with creationism and climate change deniers and all kinds of crazy.

Fiction is a fantastic escape. It’s a means of exploring other possibilities, of examining the human condition and sharing emotional connections. It is not a text book for how the world works. Demarcation, people!

So while certain truths may be counterintuitive, that may be nothing more than a failure of current understanding, When it is caused by conscious manipulation of known facts about the  ‘verse then I call it out as fabrication and mythologizing, and demand quality of imagination.

The universe is amazing enough, and has mystery enough, without us compounding our ignorance on purpose.

<Steps down from soap box and shuffles aside>

It’s a beautiful Reality. Enjoy it as it is, without the face paint.

Namaste.