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Style v Substance
TV, movies and style backed up by substance needed to change the face of hard science for all audiences - 08 Mar 10
Ceremonial demon mask, Bhutan
Changing to an engaging face of science


There has been a smorgasbord of science programmes on telly since the beginning of the year starting with the supremely eloquent and affable Prof Jim Al-Khalili guiding us through the BBC's Secret Life of Chaos.

Chaos hit the mainstream in the 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park when director Steven Spielberg made a brilliant choice of casting Jeff Goldblum in the role of quirky but super cool chaotician, Dr Ian Malcolm. Appreciating the science of the boffins suddenly became de rigueur.

Almost two decades later and most people can sit and watch an hour dedicated to some serious maths and physics without straining too many of the little grey cells. But a lot of that's due to the scientist who fronts the programme.

Pick some boring old duffer (my old chemistry teacher would be a prime example) and you've switched over to What Katie Did Next. Unbridled passion for their subject combined with an ability to articulate their PhD thesis to lesser mortals, makes the perfect science presenter.

But there must be substance with the style. I'm not talking about having someone who looks good, sounds eloquent and reads very efficiently from a teleprompt. No, I'm talking about my English teacher who I still remember 25 years on because of him, his love for our rich language and a sort of education X-Factor.

Take the likes of Profs Jim Al-Khalili and Brian Cox (www.fobblog.com/space) giving it loads on life, the universe and everything from a hard core science perspective and I'm feeling deprived they didn't present lectures at my university. I'm glued to the screen, hanging on every word and thinking about how it all works for days afterwards.

Not so with the recent attempt by BBC3 to make a sort of science/investigative journalism programme on why there is such a huge obesity problem in the UK (excuse the pun). Fronted by a young woman who I would described as goofy and, er, lightweight, Who Made Me Fat? was a mess of silly TV with a few bits of grit in a BBC3 attempt to capture the "yoof" audience.

The grit made compulsive viewing: The amount of refined sugar added as a bulking agent to food products and the resulting detrimental effects on the physiology and health of the human body. The British Heart Foundation and diabetologists all pitched in with indisputable scientific facts about the role of excess sugar and saturated fat in our diets.

My personal favourite was the NHS Trust responsible for the management of Addenbrooks hospital (the UK's leading heart op and transplant facility) gave contracts to Burger King to set up shop in the hospital foyer. Fantastic. Get your new heart (your old one had blocked arteries from eating too much saturated fat) and launch yourself at a big, fat burger as you recover on the ward.

(And the very one-sided conversation with the abusive Ministry of Health press officer refusing to give the BBC an appointment to tackle Health minister Andy Burnham is excellent fodder for youtube).

But, in the end, the programme didn't work because the presenter lacked any credibility. The final confrontation edit with the publc health minister with silly "top secret feeder files" exposing the food industry was just cringe-worthy and never going to be taken seriously.

Style won over substance and it really showed.