It had a very manly beginning with a navy jet pilot trying to land on a carrier ship by snagging some part of the undercarriage onto a steel cable which at one point was described as “strong and stiff.” The second segment then followed up with medieval armour, guns, bullets, and modern body armour. The focus in these segments and the others during the first 30 minutes of the programme was on the attributes associated with steel and with strength. The show’s theme was: Making Stuff Stronger.
The tone of the tv show reminded me of what I’ve learned to expect from a visit to Vancouver’s Science World, a local science museum. Programming is aimed at engaging children, primarily, in the fun and the wonder of science. It’s a high energy place with very colourful exhibits and entertaining presentations, all it designed to elicit the ‘Wow response’.
Watching the host balance on a wine glass or pieces of chalk in a demonstration of the objects’ tensile strength was interesting and fun but not compelling to me as an audience member. This programme was aimed at another audience demographic.
I understand from reading Andrew Maynard’s Jan. 15, 2011 posting on his 2020 Science blog, that a subsequent programme will focus on some of the risks associated with nanotechnology, which means there’s likely to be less ‘wow’. From Andrew’s Jan. 15 2011 posting,
You may recall that I expressed some reservations over the program’s approach to bioengineered materials a few weeks back – reservations that plenty of others didn’t share I hasten to add…
The sequence – which wasn’t necessary the final version of what will air on January 19th – involved the production of spider silk protein from a genetically modified goat. What worried me was the rather off-hand way safety and ethical concerns were handled.
So it was interesting that, following those comments, NOVA’s David Levin asked me to record a podcast with him on the darker side of another set of materials covered in a later program – nanomaterials. [Dexter Johnson at Nanoclast comments on the podcast and the upcoming Jan. 26 broadcast of Making Things Smaller in his Jan. 18, 2011 posting.]
The podcast was posted yesterday (and can be listened to here). Despite the rather scary title of “The Dangers of Nanotech” I thought Levine did a good job of taking the conversation through some of the concerns surrounding new nanoscale materials.
I have mentioned the ‘spidery goat milk’ sequence in my Jan. 7, 2011 posting and in my Jan. 19, 2011 posting and I was quite interested to note that the sequence remained intact in the Jan. 19, 2011 broadcast. It was done cleverly in that they made it seem very casual and it’s possible that it will never rouse any distress but I do think they made light/were dismissive of something that’s very disturbing and/or frightening to a lot of folks. I think this attitude can come across as disrespectful.
One or two or a few such incidents are not usually the problem. Communication mistakes are not like medical errors where there’s a relatively immediate response. You can have communication problems for years without any consequence but when the negative response starts to build up it rapidly becomes clear that the fury/panic is directed at something beyond any specific incident and becomes globalized with terms like ‘frankenfoods’ or ‘genetically modified organisms’ or ‘biotechnology’.
As for the carbon nanotube segments, I almost missed it. Andrew dropped by and left a comment “the segment with carbon nanotubes ended up worrying me more than the goats!” The host was charming and it was a fun sequence and I forgot for a little while about the concerns that have been expressed with regard to carbon nanotubes. Here’s an excerpt from a Jan. 18, 2011 news item on Nanowerk,
Carbon nanotubes, which are extremely small fibers used in many new light and strong materials, may present health risks if inhaled, in the worst case leading to cancer, according to new research from Lulea University of Technology.
Carbon nanotubes are a modern and extremely light material that can add desirable properties to many industrial products, but they may be a health hazard. A new doctoral dissertation (“Modeling Nanofiber Transport and Deposition in Human Airways”; pdf download) at Lulea University of Technology in Sweden shows that extremely small fibers such as carbon nanotubes can make their way far into the lungs, which in the worst case can present an increased risk of developing cancer.
In retrospect, it’s a bit disconcerting to remember David Pogue, the programme host, merrily spinning a carbon nanotube thread and casually handling (Pogue even said he probably shouldn’t be doing that) a chip-like device with carbon nanotube forests on it.
It was fun to watch even with the disturbing bits and I look forward to part 2: Making Stuff Smaller. I have a suspicion this programme won’t be nearly so manly.