In most TV markets, it’s hard to imagine the largest network broadcasting a science show in a prime-time slot on its main channel. However, that’s just what the British Broadcasting Corporation is doing with Bang Goes The Theory.
One reason is that the BBC is publicly funded and as such has a remit to educate and inform as well as entertain. The other main reason for the scheduling is that the Monday 7.30pm slot is head to head with Coronation Street, a soap opera which regularly tops the ratings. With little hope of getting strong audiences at this time, the BBC often uses the slot to house shows which are worthy but unlikely to pull big numbers.
That’s not to say Bang Goes The Theory is not aimed at a mainstream audience. Building on the experience of Tomorrow’s World, the channel’s popular science show which ran from 1965 to 2003, its name gives away the concept: science explained through spectacular demonstrations.
The debut episode featured three main experiments and an interview, all of which can be viewed at the show’s official site (UK only, though several clips are available officially through YouTube). The main attraction was a vortex cannon tested, in Three Little Pigs style, on walls made of straw, sticks and bricks:
The show also explored Gait recognition (the tracking of human movement) and showed that it’s possible to cook an egg in a pan made of paper. That’s because the ignition point of paper is much higher than people imagine: as Ray Bradbury fans will know, it’s 451 degrees Fahrenheit. There was also an interview with J. Craig Venter, the founder of the Institute for Genomic Research.
There were certainly weaknesses in the show: even with the demonstrations and explanations, I was still a little confused about how exactly the vortex cannon worked. There’s a fine balance between explaining a concept in scientific detail and keeping the audience engaged, though in a debut episode it’s probably better to err to the latter.
There was also a notably awkward segment after the Venter interview where the presenters tried to put across both sides of the ethical debate over his work; it appeared they were attempting to represent the viewpoint of Ventor’s critics for the sake of balance, but without wanting to be seen as giving credibility to those views.
Overall, though, it was a promising start, reflected in an audience of 3.2 million: unspectacular but solid given the scheduling. It certainly reflected the popular science technique of providing the wow before the how.