I watched both Brian Cox and Bruce Hood on BBC 4 last night, with the promise of the best double science lesson for many years, if not ever. As usual in these programmes, Cox flew round the world to exotic locations – this time trying to explain gravity, whilst Hood was rooted to the Royal Institution spot illustrating aspects of the functioning of the human brain in the RI's latest Christmas lectures.
At least I think that's what Cox was doing, though it was hard to tell as he shifted so quickly across high mountain ridges, deep waterfalls, deserts, a 'Comet Vomit' flight to experience what looked like an uncomfortable weightlessness, and time in a Swedish centrifuge where 5 g (the sort you find on planet Splot), looked the sort of environment to avoid at all costs; it even managed the almost impossible, and wiped the smile off Cox's face. Whilst it's good that someone endures all these hardships on our behalf, whilst providing graphic and colourful inter-galactic images (black hole anyone?), I did wonder what was the point when the ostensible purpose – bringing an understanding of the gravitational force – seemed so secondary to our being amused. Anyway, I am tired of the BBC's default assumptions about what's necessary to teach about science as these seem to be more about collecting frequent flier points than about carefully structuring learning experiences.
How refreshing, then, to watch the first two Royal Academy 'lectures' about the brain. Not only was Hood forced to be in one place, but there was a demanding audience to be engaged as well. I've watched these lectures over the years to mixed feelings, but this series seemed to hit the button: articulate, witty, and informative, with clever experiments and a lot of meaningful audience participation – and you could join in at home. It all seemed very well thought through from a pedagogical perspective – with the audience and understanding firmly in mind.
Sadly, this was not something that troubled Cox's producers who never really allowed their boy to get to grips with the reality of gravity.
Post-script, 24 hours on: I had another dose of double science again last night – same settings; same story: Cox clutching an airline ticket whilst Hood engaged his audience – and I awake to Cox on Desert Island Discs. Now, there's an idea ...