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The evolution of science on TV

From 'Tomorrow's World' to 'Horizon': how television made boffins sexy in four easy steps

Liz Bonnin on 'Horizon'

Beards, corduroy elbow patches and a hint of crippling social dysfunction: these things used to be a given. Not any more. Check out Brian Cox and his female equivalent, ‘Horizon's’ Liz Bonnin. Cox used to be in D:Ream, so he can’t be boring, right? Bonnin also flirted with pop stardom (kind of), serving time in short-lived girl band Chill.

Both are easy on the eye but, crucially, both are also proper scientists. TV science has gone from beige to kaleidoscopic. In between those extremes, we find '80s TV presenter Judith Hann on a bucking bronco and not much else.

Motor racing. Dairy farming. Sewing. Jimmy Savile. Some things, however you slice them, just aren’t telegenic. You’d imagine maths would stroll on to that list. But check out the remarkable 1996 ‘Horizon’ documentary, ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’. Mathematician Andrew Wiles is talking to camera, about maths. Suddenly, he starts crying. He’s realised, in front of our eyes, that what he’s been attempting to accomplish is the pinnacle of his life. It’s a stunning moment – his fevered brain has afforded him agony and ecstasy way beyond our trivial imaginings. The moral: maths on telly? Surprisingly, not a lost cause.

It’s at this point that Lord Reith’s dictum threatens to be tested to destruction – can TV really educate and entertain? TV science has tried many tricks. Matches striking in slow motion. Bubbling test tubes. Be-wigged extras writing with quills. Even a cat on acid. None ever seemed quite right. Much better to work that boffin: trust in the niche but timeless appeal of someone who is brilliant at something explaining it to you. 

So where’s the fun? Rockets and explosions have their moments. But ironically, given science's implicit forward motion, nostalgia can exert a strong pull too. This week’s ‘Horizon’ is subtitled ‘Tomorrow’s World’. Isn’t that whispering something in our ears, priming us to watch just in case it features a shit robot trying to play snooker or something? Or is it just appealing to the part of us that realises that past decades had wider visions, grander schemes, and better ways of imagining futures than the present? Perhaps more TV science is exactly what we need. 

Tomorrow's World: a Horizon Special’ airs Thursday April 11, 9pm, BBC2.