Guide to the Cosmos

Making the Wonders of our Universe
Accessible to everyone




Award winning books

About Dr. Piccioni
Video Lecture Series
Free Videos
mailbox Sign Up for Newsletter

July 19, 2010 Newsletter

Bad TV Science

My mission is to provide Real Science for Real People—making real discoveries and breakthrough ideas understandable to everyone without “dumbing” them down. It’s a tough job. Others also try to do this, but sometimes they do it very badly.

TV has a lot of “science” shows. The ones I most enjoy are those featuring spectacular videography of natural wonders, letting nature “speak” for herself. The shows I like least are those that “explain” physics and cosmology—Einstein, quantum mechanics, the Big Bang, string “theory”, and so on. I feel obliged to watch, but find most of these shows painful, akin to seeing a portrait of my grandmother done by Salvatore Dali, with three eyes and two noses. I want to see the real person, not sensationalized for commercial gain.

So far, I am enjoying Morgan Freeman’s “Through the Wormhole”. But, in general, TV science shows fail in three ways.

Firstly, they often fail to translate science into English. Their scientists say what but not why, and use professional jargon that no outsider understands. Scientists don’t converse in normal English because English lacks words for new phenomena. After decades of thinking and speaking technical jargon, it’s very difficult for most scientists to express their ideas in plain English—they just can’t do it.

Secondly, TV narrators often say things that are complete nonsense—it’s clear scientists rarely review the final cut. Take, for example, the “explanation” of NASA’s WMAP measurements of the geometry of our universe. The narrator said NASA shot lasers beams out to the ends of the universe and measured the angles of the returning beams. That’s complete rubbish. It has taken light 13.7 billion years to travel one-way from “the edge” of the universe to earth. Even if someone were holding up a mirror at the other end, a round-trip would take more than 27 billion years. Scientists made the first laser during my lifetime, and I’m not nearly that old. An MIT professor then added that WMAP proved the universe is “flat” and therefore infinite, with infinitely many copies of you and me. Well ... maybe. The data actually prove the universe is “flat” to 1% precision, and that is only within the small portion of the universe that is observable. While 1% sounds good, Earth can also look flat to 1% precision, but we know that isn’t true. In the future, more precise measurements may show that the universe is slightly curved, eventually closes in on itself, and is not infinite, just like Earth. Marketable drama? Perhaps. Real science? NO.

That brings us to the third major failing of TV science shows: they rarely distinguish between pure speculation and validated theories. Crazy ideas can be a good start, but until predictions are derived from these ideas and are validated by multiple rigorous experiments, scientists do not accept such ideas as credible. More than 99% of our best ideas turn out to be wrong—not the way nature works. We must be skeptical of unconfirmed ideas. Yet, TV often portrays many such speculations as fact, saying for example that space has 7 dimensions we can’t see and that there are an infinite number of parallel universes. The truth is that there isn’t a shred of evidence confirming either.

TV isn’t alone in delivering sensationalized, rather than real, science. The front cover of July’s Scientific American proclaims: “The Universe is Leaking...apparently breaking the laws of physics.” If you actually read the article far enough, it eventually explains why this isn’t true at all. What hype!

I enjoy entertaining science fiction, but not when it masquerades as science fact.

Best Regards,
Author of "Everyone's Guide to Atoms, Einstein, and the Universe" and "Can Life Be Merely An Accident?"

Dr. Piccioni's Books