Ancient Technology

I love a good science programme on the television, so I do find myself watching BBC4 programmes on the iPlayer quite frequently.  Generally, I watch, captivated by knowing that if I concentrate really hard I will, for a brief moment, understand what they’re talking about.

Even when I don’t remember any of the science, the things that stick are the stories of the scientists, the rivalries, the false leads, the personalities, the discovery races.  I enjoy the tales of constant questing and questioning; the way the contemporary commentators frame prevailing theories, implicitly accepting that when the next new theory comes along, what we think we know now may be proved to be wrong.

The recent programme ‘Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity‘ however, had me paying extra attention and delving into my memory banks: I remember ‘doing’ this at school!  Finally a whole segment during which I actually knew what was going to be said next about the developments that led up to the invention of the transistor.  We did a lot about electricity and the transistor for ‘Higher’ Physics; we were even taught a little bit about printed circuit boards, but that was all a bit cutting edge then for the school curriculum (or maybe that’s when I stopped listening).

I enjoyed physics at school, perhaps because everything I heard in the classroom was something new to me.  I was always amazed that some of the boys already knew things the teacher was saying: when we did those multitude of experiments with ticker tape and a ‘friction compensated slope’, they already knew that the frequency of electricity was 50 Hz.  I can remember asking one of them how on earth they knew that already…..of course, I’ve never forgotten.

Equally when we did that experiment with the Maltese cross and the cathode ray tube, they all nodded, ‘yeah, yeah, Television’, while I was fascinated and surprised.  So I was particularly struck when Prof Jim Al-Khalili, having demonstrated the cathode ray tube, commented that ‘of course’ that’s how televisions were made for decades.  And I wondered, could there be people watching this programme who’ve only ever seen a flat screen TV?  It’s even less likely they’ve listened to a transistor radio……

The only thing that’s constant is change.

Last week, I also watched the programme ‘Faster than the Speed of Light‘, presented by Prof Marcus du Sautoy, which examined new findings by a team of Italian scientists which suggested that they had discovered a particle that could travel faster than the speed of light.  If true, apparently this would undermine much of what is believed about everything, as many theories in physics are predicated on the basis that the speed of light is an absolute maximum.

That’s the most that I understood about the science; what I loved about the programme were the interviews with other scientists who now have the opportunity and obligation to test their own fondly held theories, their live’s work, against this new data.  They all have to find ways to knock holes in it; it gave a fantastic insight into the rough and tumble of the scientific world, a powerful brew of science, ego and curiosity.

Writing this post I looked up both of the Prof presenters, to make sure I was spelling their names correctly, and noticed that they both hold academic positions with slightly odd, potentially Orwellian, names.  Prof Jim holds the chair of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, and Prof Marcus is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science.

Hmm.  ‘Engagement’ versus ‘Understanding’?  Pedagogue or Pied Piper? I’m sensing a touch of inter institutional rivalry there.  Are they merely post facto smoke screens to recognise that the guys are always on the telly so they’d better be called something to explain why they’re never around the university?  Or did the job description ‘get yourself on the telly’, come first?

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  1. Enjoyed this. I think my memory is poorer than yours, but my appreciation of the sheer wierdness of science has increased as time goes by. Do you remember ever saying ‘Faster than the speed of light’? And so it goes..

    • Thank you Jean. I wish my memory were better – it’s been bothering me that I can’t remember the name of my physics teacher – is it enough to only recall the things he taught me? It’s a phrase I use often (usually ironically), and now it might be true!


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