HPS on’t Telly

Being a lazy bastard I enjoy watching HPS documentaries. Good ones can be very entertaining, and bad ones can be a way of keeping yourself sharp. For the past couple of weeks I have been trying to get hold of a series called “Crucible: Science in Society”. (If you know of anyone who has copies/the capacity to make copies it would be great to hear from you). I tracked down some of the episodes to ITV who hold the rights. They however fancied charging me £115 an episode, I haven’t emailed back. The main reason I want to see it is that it sounds like how an HPS documentary series should be made in an ideal world. Historians of science, given a pretty decent budget and asked to make something valuable and entertaining. At least this is how Simon Schaffer made it sound in this part of his Alan Macfarlane interview. Alongside this it would be great to know what kind of ideas (it was once felt) could be got across in an hour long programme. What really gets on my tits however is that so many history of science programmes are remarkably still being made by scientists.

This isn’t a new complaint, everyone who cares a little about HPS will have noticed it. Whether in Channel 4’s Genius of Britain or most of the BBC’s history of science output, (usually  fronted by Jim Al-Khalili or Michael Moseley) I am forced to wonder, where the craping hell are the ACTUAL historians of science? Why bother professionalizing at all if when it comes to arguably the most accessible media for the majority of the public we just let ourselves get shafted? I know that in some cases proper fully paid up members to the history of science club have worked from behind the scenes, directing the content (as in the BBC’s Power, Proof and Passion) and Simon Schaffer gets on the telly quite a bit. But with all the history of science programming still being churned out, why not get more of our faces on the box? And don’t say it’s because we are all munters, a couple of us have sexy faces, you know who you are.

It looks as though TV is just catching up with what David Phillip Miller has called the ‘Sobel effect’, the seemingly endless growth in popular science and science history writing triggered by Dava Sobel in the 1990s.  In the particular case of the programme which sparked this blog post this is literally so, for John Emsley, one of the more prolific contributors to this popular history of science movement, was a key consultant on Jim Al-Khalili’s Chemistry: A Volatile History which is currently being repeated. Much of this programming is bad, just bad. And most irritatingly, history of science seems to be something anyone thinks they can just pick up and spout off about. One of the most recent and partiuclarly aggravating examples of this was Niall Fergusson’s use of Newton and Boyle as the prime example of how the Royal Society thrived due to collective enterprise. Fuck sake.

If you know of anyone currently trying to redress this balance by taking the popular interest in history of science and turning it to the disciplines advantage, please let me know. There may well be things going on that I have missed and would love to hear about them. Sadly however, I imagine that it is much more likely that HPS’ers, confronted with the Sobel effect have thought “yes, that is a problem, let’s hope more professionals start writing more popular HPS books” before getting back to their own stuff. Well I say let’s get territorial. Would the public put up with an art documentary fronted by Paul Danan? Or a history of stand-up comedy by Jeffrey Archer? Course not, so for Christ sake let’s have documentaries written by people who know what they are talking about. Through the museum project I will soon be having my first punt at making a video to be broadcast on-line (yeah, me and Schaffer is well the same now like). If that roughly minute long endeavour turns into a harrowing experience, I shall eat all my words and run back to my research, never to demand interaction with the public again. If it doesn’t, then shame on all of you, because I’m a fucking idiot, and if I can do 1 minute you could easily manage an hour! (I have nobody particular in mind here, just all HPS’ers currently safely employed and capable of making such a programme). If you disagree, then let me know.

In the mean time, Berris Charnley has recently uploaded a series of videos of papers given at the White Rose IpBio conference held at Leeds. I am going to watch them while I wait for one of you guys to get a script commissioned. Start writing….now!


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