The problems and solutions of entertainment physics

Lewis Johnson.

Physics, and science as a general, has been a product in the mass media for some time now. Arguably since Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ or Richard Feynman making science easily explained and approachable, the idea of science being more than just for scientists. Presenting science in an interesting way can capture people’s interest in a variety of ways, and it’s important to know how to use it to further science and people’s understanding.

In the media, I posit that there are three motivations for creating scientific programming, either on television, radio, YouTube or even in pop-cultural books. First, and perhaps the most noble, is to ‘catch up’ the public on what scientists are doing, and to give a glimpse into the progress that their tax money is providing. Secondly, is to ‘hook’ people into science, particularly young people, and to show that it is an interesting subject with good prospects as a potential career. Finally, pure entertainment value with science as the product with no real intention towards teaching or impressing, but to use science to fill TV time with no further interest.

I realise that this may looks like a sliding scale of cynicism, but for the most part science seems to be preached to inspire awe in people, paying no heed to how the day-to-day of science functions. You will often find scientific programming tackling ‘big questions’ with shows titled ‘Wonders of the universe[1] but none talking about theoretical concepts or basics such as the scientific method. We have to wonder if it’s even possible to catch people up on modern physics- explaining how an apple falls from a tree is easy, but we utterly fail at concisely describing quantum physics, leading to people completely missing the point (see quantum woo[2]).

It’s a question as to whether or not we even can catch people up in a reasonable timeframe anymore, let alone can we explain it well. Brian Cox inadvertently hit the nail on the head with this issue in the first episode of ‘Wonders of Life[3] when he attempts to define energy. He states his definition as ‘The length of the spacetime four vector in the time direction’ but dismisses this as a somewhat impenetrable definition to most [4]. This is indicative of a communication problem when explaining to the public- we’re attempting to explain complex concepts which for ease of understanding require complex answers. Instead, we attempt to explain the same concepts using simple language which is an utterly fruitless exercise and will only ever cause confusion if we do not give the full picture.

I propose the solution to this initial problem is rather than explaining everything poorly we should explain what we can completely. Get an actual lecturer with enough on screen presence to be appealing to the public, or a presenter with enough physics knowledge to deliver it convincingly to an audience. Explain concepts as we would to each other, but take advantage of the scripted nature of media to deliver a slower and sleeker lecturing style. The key is not to insult people’s intelligence, and to point them in the right direction if they are people who want to learn more. Rather than covering all bases poorly, I say we need to explain the bases we can, as best we can.

This brings us to the secondary, related, point of using scientific entertainment to attract people into scientific careers. In particular, this means that the programming is aimed at younger people to entice them into the field and get them involved, but ultimately we are being utterly disingenuous to what day-to-day science is. Most presentations use music, swish CGI equations and helicopter shots of grand landscapes asking ‘the big questions’ rather than talking about the scientific process, experimental methods and some theoretical underpinnings of the universe. During 2010, the BBC ran a ‘Year of science’ and these programmes had a lasting impact, increasing the number of children taking GCSE science exams by 36.1%[5]. I worry that if these people go on to do a science subject in university they will quickly discover that they may have been lied about what science is and isn’t.

The solution to this is that we need to be genuine with kids, and much like the case of catching up the public, assume that those who are interested will go on to study the subject further. Seminars, debates and indeed blog posts are filled with interesting information about the scientific scene and can be found all over the shop if people are put in their direction. As opposed to perpetuating a lie of wonder that we teach them at a young age, use entertainment to hook people into physics by being genuine and getting scientists who are passionate about their subject to be honest and explain lecturing; seminars; scientific method; grants; research groups; the Nobel prize and experiments both grand and small.

Such a program would involve explicit attention being paid to an audience under 18, after which there is a much lower uptake of people wanting to actively being involved in science. It could be either TV or more likely an online YouTube series for ease of providing links, access of information at any time and internet being the easiest way to access an under 18’s audience. Various presenters/lecturers would go through scientific institutions and piece by piece through the scientific process from grant applications, to ideas, to collaborations and eventually to publishing and sharing ideas. The whole process is woven with basic physics processes including basic mathematical framework with an emphasis on moving people onto websites and other programmes/books if they are interested further.

We finally come to a great underlying issue throughout all of this in that science is a marketable product in many ways because it inspires curiosity in people. This is far from a bad thing, the ability to engender curiosity in people is what makes science an attractive prospect to many people as a career and why so many people invest in it. Though there is potential for misinformation in the name of entertainment, people tend to be quick in correcting incorrect information. This is shown again by the ubiquitous Brian Cox on Night of the Stars when talking about the Pauli Exclusion Principle and sparking an entire debate as to the validity of what he said7]. Sufficed to say that whenever misinformation is spread, scientists are quick to strike it down, so to combat misinformation in the media we need only keep up the work.

In summary, science in the media has great potential to be used to inform, inspire and entertain people but has its inherent pitfalls in its potential to spread misinformation, both in catching up the public view, inspiring new scientists and presenting science to capture’s people curiosity. Overall, being honest, understanding the limitations of people’s understanding and not patronizing our intended audiences will allow us to make science in the media a more potent presence than ever before.


[1] – Wonders of the Universe by Brian Cox

[2] – Quantum Woo article

[3] – – Wonders of life by Brian Cox

[4] –  Defining energy in Wonders of life

[5] – BBC 2010 Year of Science

[5] – Internet and TV usage amongst young people

[7] – – Is Brian Cox wrong? Sixty symbols




The problems and solutions of entertainment physics

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