Light Fantastic by Simon Schaffer [BBC4] wednesday nights

I should be nice about the presenter of this show (and can at least spell his name correctly unlike many print listings I’ve seen) as he was one of the teacher’s at the department in Cambridge where I studied as an undergraduate. And I will be, mostly, because this is a good show. Though I didn’t see him much in the dept, Simon Schaffer was quite the presence, and his book (with Shapin) on Hooke’s air pump was essential reading. I always imagined (and imagined that he also imagined) that he would end up as a media wonk, so when he popped up on the BBC4 doc about Hooke earlier this year, I wasn’t so surprised.

This show (4 x 1-hour progs) is a “history of light”. The way popular science works now is you have to have something solid to hang it all on. Light isn’t concrete like a tuber/spice/mineral/fish/clock that changed the world, but it is something with visceral appeal, and this is television after all. So in contrast to the lofty “may as well be doing it on the radio” approach that Jonathan Miller’s recent BBC4 atheism-doc took, the team here are able to have some fun.

I say fun, but it veered into silly in the last ep I watched when, at one point, Schaffer got dressed up in 17th C clobber and had himself projected on to an artist’s canvas in a reconstruction of a Camera Obscura. The irony being, that Schaffer really is NO oil painting*. Further distraction is afforded by the eerie resemblance to Patrick Barlow, the writer/presenter of many spoof history docs on the telly. Fortunately Schaffer has the rhetorical charge, and media training, to over come this and carry it off.

Notably, this show has allowed somone to get a steadying hand on the public understanding of the history of science. Without Schaffer’s input this production could have charged on regardless with a “great men”/”whiggish”/present-minded approach. As Schaffer says in this BBC interview:

“the past of the sciences is presented on its own terms, showing the significance of forces like theology, culture and economic development on the development of ideas.”

Hurray. It was certainly welcome to see (outside of academic textbooks) a portrayal of Galileo as a man motivated by earthly needs, his religious beliefs and perhaps a measure of curiosity, rather than the battered stereotype striving to put science on absolute foundations and bring down the church. (Not to say that he didn’t give the Pope a bit of a kicking.) It was also nice to see, in a meta-mode, emphasis on the historical importance of popular science: Hooke’s best-selling book; blockbuster box-office takings for the theatrical presentation of Herchel’s discoveries.

Oddly I missed the “written and presented by” credit, or perhaps the writing was more of a group effort. There were certainly some dodgy extensions of the subject of “light” that perhaps are best lost in the collective. Parallax is billed as a property of light (oo, well, er, i suppose), and it was a stretched hop, skip and a jump to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. But overall I enjoyed this a lot, and I would defintely recommend this show if the approach to history is new to you. But then I was never a very rebellious student.

*I got a third for my (rubbish) dissertation, so what can I lose? In the unlikely event that you (the idle blog reader) are Simon Schaffer: Only joking! I am very very sorry – please don’t take it seriously. Seriously though, the big telly money is in selling it abroad, and the US audience won’t stand for those teeth.