Light and Dark, BBC4

LightandDarlpic Last night, my new two-part documentary, Light and Dark, aired on BBC4. The man who deserves almost all the praise is director/producer, Stephen Cooter. He wrote most of the script and put the 120 minutes together into something special. It was produced in partnership with The Open University, and essentially explores how we have uncovered the secrets of our universe by using and manipulating light. It is therefore another one of those science docs I enjoy making that mix stories from the history of science with mind-blowing big ideas and concepts that BBC4 audiences enjoy. You can watch it on BBC iPlayer here.

The central premise of this series is that what the human eye can see is only a fraction of the vast amount of matter and energy that exists out in the Universe: our best estimate is that more than 99% of all the stuff that’s out there is hidden in the dark. So how do we know it’s there?

What the commissioners, execs and controllers at the BBC have come to appreciate over the past few years is that science programmes can be delivered across different platforms and at different levels to different audiences. And the stuff I enjoy doing is at a level isn’t aimed at the lowest common denominator. My audiences tell me they don’t mind if they don’t follow all the concepts, they want to be made to feel clever while watching and to have their minds expanded to the point of exploding – in a good way. I was recently told that certain top-level execs at the BBC referred to Light and Dark as ‘mindfuck TV’. I take that as a compliment.

So last night, both during and after the programme, I received a constant stream of comments on Twitter from viewers – so many in fact that I simply could not respond to all. To be fair, most were lovely short tweets saying how much they were enjoying the programme. I have selected a few below that I thought it would be nice to share. Obviously I have removed the Tweeters’ names.

Firstly, let me say something about the cinematographic technique we used to give that wonderful lighting effect. It was achieved using what is called a ‘day for night’ filter on the camera (BTW, cameraman Tom Hayward is quite excellent). The method is also known as nuit américaine (“American night”) and is used to simulate a night scene while filming in daylight. The point being that we wanted to mix up day and night and play with the concept of light and dark. Historically, infrared movie film was used to achieve an equivalent look even with black-and-white film. So it is not new. But it does give a different feel to the films and the vast majority of viewers (going by the statistically reasonable twitter comments) thought it worked brilliantly:

“Light is the key subject of painting, ‘Light & Dark’ is certainly the best program on #art I’ve seen for a long time!”

and

“the cinematography is beautiful. Unique, relevant and original approach.”

But to balance this, of the very many in favour, there were a tiny number who didn’t like it:

“I think it’s spoiling the programme – to the extent that my wife and I have more or less stopped watching it.”

Well, you can’t please everyone. And at least I didn’t get what Brian Cox seems to have to put up with: complaints that the background music is too distracting.

I was also pleased that a number of viewers picked up the bits where we had some fun, such as the lift sequence going up the medieval bell tower in Venice:

“Loved Light & Dark, especially the ‘Girl from Ipanema’ nod to the Blues Brothers”

Obviously, I appreciate that although I see myself as an incredibly handsome young man, I might not appeal (in a boffiny, eye candy sort of way) to all the young ladies out there, but do I take the following as a compliment?

“My 86 year old mum enjoyed it too. She says you are very handsome. I at least agree with her taste in programmes……”

And these sort of comments don’t bother me at all, honest:

“Another great show, you are just as good as that Cox fella! ….. If only you had some hair!!!”

And as for BBC4 rather than BBC2:

“Superb TV, shouldn’t be hidden away on BBC4. How’d the ratings battle with #imacelebrity go?”

Well, I sort of assume that the overlap of audiences is rather small. And, yes it would be nice if these programmes aired on BBC2 as well. Of course, there are no DVDs to be made of the series as far as I know. So if people don’t record it or catch it on iPlayer, please don’t email or tweet me asking me how you can get hold of it.

LightandDarkpic5Finally, a lot of comments on my use of a blackboard to write down algebraic equations, not just for aesthetic reasons (in a ‘look how beautiful this maths is and how clever I am for being able to understand it’ sort of way) but for a valid reason that is part of the story. In this case it was James Clark Maxwell’s derivation of what is called the ‘wave equation’ that has imbedded in it a very special number: the speed of light (300,000,000 metres per second) starting from a very technical set of squiggles and symbols better known as Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism. Now, every physics student will learn about this stuff, but you do need to have studied advanced calculus to even begin to understand what the symbols mean, let alone follow my fast and tightly edited blackboard work.

But this is what I mean when I say the BBC have changed the way science is presented. Ten years ago it was unheard of (apart from on an Open University lecture programme) for a physics professor to write equations on a blackboard on prime time TV. I believe I am right in thinking that I started the ball rolling on my 2007 documentary, Atom. It is part of the same trend I mentioned earlier whereby audiences want to be involved in the excitement of someone appreciating high level maths used to uncover profound ideas about the Universe without necessarily needing to follow all the steps.

I should say that Brian Cox, in his Science of Doctor Who lecture at the Royal Institution that was aired on BBC2 last week, also wrote down Maxwell’s equations and derived the speed of light, just as I did. And that was on BBC2!!!!

Here are some comments about this:

“Fantastic show. Well produced, lovely cutaways complete and informative as usual. Well done! Wave equation simply stunning”

“Masterfully done, sir. (plus Maxwell’s equations on prime-time telly!) #LightAndDark”

“Yay! Shame they cut some of the algebra, but good to see this paid for by my license fee. Great show.”

“Great to see a grown up scientific programme which shows us the mathematics.”

OK, I acknowledge that many viewers would even have understood the maths. After all, I made sure all my own students were watching it.

And then there were those felt there wasn’t enough science. Yes, I know, you can’t please everyone. They asked: where was discussion of light as photons? Where was Einstein’s relativity? Where was Herschel’s discovery of infrared radiation? etc etc.
Come on guys, I only had an hour!

Anyway, I was left with a warm feeling after many tweets like these:

“Thanks for the best science TV I’ve ever seen. Brilliant! Reflections from your gleaming cranium in nearly every frame! ;)

“Beautiful, in places almost poetic, stuff tonight. Can’t wait for part two”

Yes, part 2 is even more ‘mindfuck TV’. I will be delving into the mysteries of the Dark and reveal just how little we still know about our universe. I explain the strange discovery of dark matter and dark energy, a mysterious force that is thought to make up 73% of our universe, and is pushing it apart at an ever-more rapid rate.

LightandDrkpic2And I get to go on another fairground ride to demonstrate physics!

Enjoy.

About Jim Al-Khalili

Professor of theoretical physics at the University of Surrey, author and broadcaster.
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