Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Why science on TV is like magic on Britain's Got Talent

I know it looks like F, but it's an E, okay?
Blame the 3D shading.
Recently I was watching an old QI on Dave, the way you do. (For non-UK readers, QI is a humorous general knowledge quiz, and Dave is a TV channel. No, really.) One of the contestants was a comedian with a background in physics. At one point he tried to explain some sciencey thing, I can't remember what. Within seconds, the other comedians on the panel were miming going to sleep and generally acting like bored kids at the back of a class.

Now admittedly this wasn't a great exposition of science, as he was thinking on his feet, but it really didn't need this response. Suddenly I made the connection with magic on Britain's Got Talent. This TV talent show that is manipulative within an inch of the viewers' lives has a reputation for chewing up magic acts and spitting them out. The trouble is simple. The judges have the attention span of gnats. This is communicated to the audience, who similarly start to get restless if something dramatic hasn't happened within 10 seconds of the act beginning.

This presents magicians with a real challenge, because the actual magic illusion is usually very quick and in some ways quite trivial. What makes great magic is the gradual build, often injecting some tension and danger, before the sudden amazing event occurs. Stripped of the build there isn't really an act. But the Britain's Got Talent mob don't have the patience to sit through a build.

And here, I believe, is the problem with people explaining science on TV (or the radio). It's often the case that to get to the amazing bit, you need quite a long build. Our local radio presenter and I have discussed doing a piece on quantum theory for my next appearance on BBC Wiltshire. I was thinking about how to do this, and there is exactly the same problem those magicians have. To get to the amazing bits I have to do quite a lot of building. So, for instance, to talk about a photon going through both of Young's slits and intefering with itself (that should get the attention from the back of the class) I have to woffle on about how the slits were used to 'prove' light is a wave and so on and so forth.

The only answer I can see (and I guess this is a hint for how to succeed with magic on Britain's Got Talent too) is not to let the build get boring - which can only mean injecting a lot of interest along the way. It's not enough to know that in 2 minutes time you will get to a really interesting bit, by then you will have lost them. You can still have the amazing peaks, but get the interest factor in early and keep it going through the build.

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