It’s Not (Rocket) Science!

22 02 2016

I’ve just finished watching ITV’s new show It’s Not Rocket Science

I was excited to see science making it to the big time. We’ve had singing (X-Factor), we’ve had dancing (Strictly…), we’ve even had winter sports (The Jump) but this is the first time that I can think science has taken centre stage. Unfortunately in this first episode science wasn’t allowed to take centre stage. Disappointingly for me the science wasn’t really allowed anywhere near the programme at all. 

The show was billed as “a science-based entertainment show” in the schedules and at the start of this week’s episode Ben Miller explained the show was “an entertainment show that looks at the world through a pair of science-shaped glasses”. 

Does the fact that it is an entertainment show mean it can be almost devoid of scientific content? I don’t think so.

I was hoping for another show like  Penn and Teller’s magic vehicle Fool Us. That show manages to satisfy both the general public looking for entertainment as well as people with a niche interest in the subject.

Their show celebrates magic and all its idiosyncrasies. It’s Not Rocket Science is not as confident. Rather than celebrating the science it tried to hide it. 

The show started with a race between a Red Arrows jet and the UK’s fastest sprinter over 100m. We then saw Rachel Riley zip line through a wall of fire. Romesh Ranganathan tested gadgets in school. We had some ‘news’ and messed about with a rugby player. Ben Miller took Joey Essex to a race track to drive a car using brainwaves before we ended with a studio-based liquid nitrogen piece. 

It sounded great on paper, it was certainly entertaining, but beyond the big budget gloss there wasn’t  any substance.

Take the Red Arrows piece.

We begin with brooding music, Top Gear-style “hero shots” of the plane and sprinter together with dramatic voiced-over factoids (“this isn’t any jet, it’s a such-and-such jet, it can fly at x mph… this isn’t any runner, this is the only British runner to go under 10 seconds for the 100m etc”). 

 Cool, I thought as I watched, those factoids really mean nothing out of context but it is exciting and it looks beautiful. What science are we going to explore with this?

The competition is set up. “It’s not something anyone’s tried before…” says the pilot dramatically to camera. “I’ve raced Usain Bolt”, says the sprinter, “but this is my toughest opponent yet.” 

Ok, so far so hyped, but it’s ITV, we can forgive them that. When do we get some science?

Ben Miller gets briefed before getting in the plane (eh?!). He’s told about how dangerous this could be, how the ejector seat could rocket him out of the plane, he’s apparently really scared and, even though this is his boyhood dream, asks “is it too late to back out?”

Ooh, jeopardy, I’m on the edge of my seat. Before the race starts, though, can we please have some science?

Now here’s the race. [voice over] “The Red Arrow has the higher top speed, the runner has the quicker acceleration. Both want to win.”

Ready, steady, go! There are numerous shots all beautifully set up to show the sprinter and the plane moving side by side and… the plane just gets to the 100m line first.   

 Right, that was undoubtably cool, you’ve definitely got my attention, but what’s it got to do with science?

Cut to reality TV-style reaction pieces. Everyone has to tell us how they felt and how it was the most amazing experience of their lives eg: Ben Miller: “I felt so emotional…”

Good God. Ok. We get it. It’s an entertainment show but you said it was science-based. Please, please can we have some science? 

Cut to the studio and a discussion about what we’ve seen on the video. 

 Now do we get the science? Nope. Just some banter and joshing between the presenters about how amazing the video was and how Ben Miller wasn’t sick. 

There was basically no science content at all. 

They mentioned the words “acceleration” and “speed” in the voice over but that was it. We didn’t need anything too hard, we didn’t need equations, but we got nothing. There was no explanation of what we were seeing beyond the superficial. 

In the studio discussion the Red Arrows pilot gave us a hint of what we could have been covering as he told us “we did some maths and realised how close it could be” but this was totally ignored by the panel (or any further discussion was deftly edited out).

And that set the pattern for the whole show. Loads of hype, beautiful TV eye candy, but very little, if no, science.

In the next section Rachel Riley was apparently in danger of being burnt to a crisp as she flew down a zip wire through a wall of fire. 

“It could be fatal” she told us. No it couldn’t, Rachel. Anyone who’s passed their finger through a candle flame knows as long as you go fast enough you won’t get burned. It’s the difference between radiation and convection. You can’t get your finger very close to the top of a flame without getting burned but you can get your finger within millimetres of the side and suffer no ill-effects.  Kevin Fong, no less, ex NASA and fresh from this year’s RI Christmas Lectures was wheeled in to give us his special science explanation before Rachel took to the zip line. “Step into my office and let me show you how science is going to save you.” Kevin said. Here’s what we are told:

It’s all about this thing we call specific heat capacity and that’s the energy it takes to warm water up… Of all the objects that we have in the house water takes the most energy to heat up… 

[This is demoed with some bread. Regular bread blasted by two blowtorches for 10 seconds chars but bread sprayed with water doesn’t.] This is all about taking the energy that could damage you and make it do something else.

Well yes, sort of, but the science that’s going to save her is the speed and the angle she’s going to fly through the flames, isn’t it? If she was stopped in the flames and held steady for 10 seconds like the toast under the blowtorch I don’t think a spray of water would help her much. 

How long she could last before getting burned *with a spray of water* and *without a spray of water* would actually be a science experiment… but that’s not what this show was about. 

We cut to more brooding music, dramatic camera shots and statements about how scary it’s going to be. “This is by far the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done. But there’s no turning back now”, Rachel said. 

She set off. It looked great but we never saw her go through the flames at full speed. Only in slomo. Hmm…

Now you could argue that this was just a dramatic choice but it also handily hid how little time she spent in the flames. It also made it look like the water was the thing that saved her. The way this was edited misrepresented or at least massively oversimplified what was going on. 

And guess what? After that we got yet more slow motion footage and dramatic reaction pieces to camera- but no more science.

I could carry on but I don’t think you need to hear in detail about how Ben Miller steered the car using what could have been a Wii controller strapped to his head and Joey Essex apparently controlled the speed of the car with “beta brain waves”. Of course, we were not told how this process worked but I’ve played with one of these and it looked very similar… 

Star Wars Force Training Game

The show ended with three bog standard liquid nitrogen demos one of which I covered being performed much better in my last post all of which were generic, unimaginative and not done particularly well. 

We were quickly told about liquid nitrogen then a bunch of roses was whacked half-frozen off Joey’s head and the flesh of a pretty squidgy looking banana, you guessed it, was used to hit a nail into a board.

These were not allowed to get cold properly and the presenter didn’t stress enough the before (soft, flexible, room temperature petals and banana) compared to the after (cold, brittle and frozen petals and banana) so the whole point of those demos, the science, the extreme temperature of the LN2, got lost.  

And I think this typified the attitude to science in the whole show. The science effect and the scientific explanation of one of the most mind-blowing substances on Earth, liquid nitrogen, wasn’t considered spectacular or interesting enough to  be centre stage (or even to rehearse properly or reshoot when the flowers hardly crumbled and the banana started to splatter instead of shatter). Instead, we were encouraged to laugh with Ben Miller at a stupid celebrity. Celebrities are obviously entertaining but not science. 

Their final demo was the liquid nitrogen cloud. I’d have hoped such a big budget show would have done more than just copy a demo they’ve seen on YouTube.

Here is Steve Spangler’s version with kids…   

and his version on the Ellen Show.    

 Here is the same demo on the Jimmy Fallon show:   

 Here it is on a Japanese kids show:

And here it is done by Jonathon Ross and Brian Cox:   

The way It’s Not Rocket Science did the demo was identical:  
 But nt only wasn’t it any different to all those others there wasn’t any science explanation to justify the effect. 

As he performed the demo Ben Miller told us: “I’m going to heat up the nitrogen with hot water… look we’ve made a cloud!” That was it. 

In an hour long science-based entertainment show, even if it is an entertainment show first and foremost surely we could have had a tiny bit more of explanation?

What is a cloud? What was that cloud? Why did it go so high? Why did it fall down to the ground unlike clouds in the sky? What do people use LN2 for? etc

Both of the Steve Spangler examples are performed more dramatically than the one in this show and I would argue they are both are more satisfying as well because we learn something alongside getting to marvel at something spectacular.

This sums up where I think It’s Not Rocket Science went wrong. Taking out the science from a show advertised as being (however entertainingly) about science doesn’t make the show more accessible it renders the whole exercise pointless. 

People tuning in for entertainment will turn over to alternative shows that aren’t shackled by having to pretend there’s a scientific reason behind it all and people tuning in to see some science will give up as the show really has none. 

I hope the next shows are treated differently, I hope the presenters who were all very good and all have impressive science and maths credentials, are allowed to explore just a little beyond the superficial. 

I don’t think adding some explanations will turn people off. I think those wanting entertainment will find it makes the stunts more, not less, interesting and those tuning in for science will not stick with the show for long if there continues to be so little for them. 




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