Monday, 30 September 2013

On scientists presenting history, and the the Gove school of history

I happened to watch Science Britannia over the weekend, ( and was left somewhat confused that such a thing was commissioned. I am not naive enough to not see that presence of Cox is enough in itself to draw viewers, and I have to admit I like his other programmes. Presumably this is the whole reason for the celebrity presents academic programme genre (see Fiona Bruce, Richard Hammond etc).

There were a few problems, however. Firstly, Cox could not help but to bang the drum for the scientific method, something he has repeated in other media appearances. Not a bad thing, it’s an important point, but it seemed a bit like it was being shoehorned in at times. What was most troubling, however, was the whole thrust of the programme. The title Science Britannia perhaps warned of the main problem, but I was still surprised about quite how myopic it was. It was the history of British scientific exceptionalism, straight from the Michael Gove history of science. There is no denying that British science has been influential, but there was no mention of international context to the sporadic examples (both in chronology and field). Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking that no foreign scientist had done anything of note. Even if it ignored Pasteur, Koch, Bohr, Tesla, Edison, Curie, Einstein and the rest, it needed to be stated that there was a contribution from outside this country – indeed, that science is not just the work of lone geniuses, but men who ‘stood on the shoulders of giants.’ Indeed, for example, the ‘British’ discovery of the structure of DNA had the American James Watson playing a crucial role.

At the end of the episode, however, the reason for this became clear. It read like a funding application for British science. We need to continue funding British science to keep this British exceptionalism going. And therein lies the problem with having Cox as the presenter. And to think historians as excellent as Simon Schaffer are relegated to BBC 4....


  1. The other problem was having an empiricist physicist present it: as though current physics (and Newton, Einstein etc) weren't primarily theoretical physicists.

    1. Indeed. Whilst much was made of the 'crazy' ideas of the Greeks, not much was made of Newton's alchemy