I’ve just got home from the Royal Institution where the BBC were filming a lecture by Brian Cox on the quantum universe. Apart from the BBC cameras, the most obvious difference from a usual lecture were the members of the audience, some of whom had paid a lot for a meal and were allowed to sit in the main auditorium, some had taken advantage of a free ticket just to the talk, and some were there because they were famous. Now, some were scientists, like Jim Al-Khalili (who would, I imagine know enough about quantum theory already), and I think I saw Mark Miodownik in the audience; but most were just there as they were famous. I’m not very good on celebrities, or even most people who are famous because they are talented, and of this celebrated audience I could recognise David Baddiel, Marcus Brigstocke, Charlie Brooker, Andy Hamilton, Charlie Higson, Philip Schofield (I know him from his time with Gordon the Gopher), and someone told me Al Murray was there too.
Us plebs were in the gallery (apart from those who were used to fill the seats downstairs), so there was quite an area of audience I couldn’t see, in which there were undoubtedly many more famous people I either would, or would probably would not, have recognised.
Brian Cox is a very good communicator, indeed his Why does e=mc2?, written with Jeff Forshaw, is the only thing I’ve read or seen that actually explained to me that very thing, and he’s as personable and pleasant in real life as he appears to be on television. I found this talk very enjoyable, even although it didn’t present anything that was novel to me.
On occasions he would invite someone (famous) from the audience to help, not always very successfully: Sarah Millican appeared rather obtuse, I don’t know whether being slow-witted is part of her persona, but her time on stage was a bit of a waste of time. Jonathan Ross’s blundering equally added little to the imparting of information about Planck’s Constant or Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The trick of the questioning layman (e.g. Tony Robinson in Time Team) is that the layman needs to know enough to be able to ask intelligent questions and respond in an intelligent way.
What worked well was a practical demonstration of the standing wave atomic model which involved joining Jim Al-Khalili and Simon Pegg (an actor, a well-known search engine informs me) together with a very long spring; setting fire to James May was quite fun, too.
Not many people could keep an audience entertained with explanation of the Pauli Exclusion Principle, but Brian Cox did tonight. It’s part of the promotion for the new book he’s written with Jeff Forshaw, The Quantum Universe: everything that can happen does happen, and I would like to see the pair of them give a more traditional talk at the RI, as they did for the previous book – Jeff is also a very interesting speaker. One thing about the books, they’re not as light and fluffy as the television programmes; they are very much as accessible, but do require a bit more mental effort.
I’ve today (2 December) been informed that the programme, tastefully entitled A Night With the Stars, will be broadcast on 18 December 2011 on BBC2 and BBC HD at 2100. And today (18 December) a clip of Simon Pegg and Jim Al-Khalili demonstrating standing waves appeared. The whole programme will be available on the BBC iPlayer for a week after the initial broadcast.