thu 25/04/2024

Precision: The Measure of All Things, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Precision: The Measure of All Things, BBC Four

Precision: The Measure of All Things, BBC Four

A brisk jaunt through the abstracts with the Grand Elucidator of Science

1799, pure platinum: du Sautoy with the metre rule from the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures

Given the breadth of Marcus du Sautoy’s cultural scholarship, it was a small surprise that British poet Andrew Marvell wasn't name-checked at the start of the presenter’s new three-parter Precision: The Measure of All Things. “Had we but world enough and time,” the great Metaphysical wooer called to his Coy Mistress, touching directly on the subjects of episode one, “Time and Distance”.

Time was equally of the essence for du Sautoy, who barely caught breath in his (more respectable) urgency to explain everything behind his subject, and how it touched on the world we live in. The unforgiving minute, indeed.

With landmarks like The Story of Maths behind him, du Sautoy is now a bit of a screen natural, making the appeal of measuring things with ever-increasing degrees of accuracy seem real, even infectious. Whether we will really have found our own human order when we’ve quantified the last unknown out there, and bested the extremes of precision, may be a subject for psychologists, but in this attempt, with du Sautoy as our guide, it sure was thrilling.

There’s a beguiling element of competition, as du Sautoy predicts part two's battle in which 'the best minds in measurement science fight it out'

It proved a cultural journey as much as anything else: from the Lascaux caves, where stars and stags set the weeks and the seasons, to the Pyramids, which wouldn’t have happened without the cubit (local administrators faced the death penalty, apparently, if they didn’t annually recalibrate against the Pharaoh’s cubit). Monty Python territory loomed occasionally close, though du Sautoy resisted any hint of a snigger, as we learnt that the 12th-century British yard was the length from the King’s nose to the end of his outstretched thumb.

Things weren’t any clearer across the Channel, when pre-revolutionary France had apparently more than a quarter of a million different weights and measures (the sheer vocabulary of it all!). If rivalry across la Manche was an ongoing issue – Greenwich trumped in the dateline stakes – France won for the sheer bloody-mindedness with which they set the metre (main picture). Two valiant Gallic triangulators set out from Dunkirk and Barcelona in 1791 hoping to meet somewhere in the middle: they duly did, seven years later, their journeys complicated not least by the uncertain atmosphere of the aftermath of the Revolution (pictured right, getting to grips with a triangulating telescope).  

Ahead of us are “Mass and Moles”, the latter referring to the shyest of the seven units of measurement, before it all concludes with “Light, Heat and Electricity”. There’s a beguiling element of competition set up, as du Sautoy predicts part two's battle in which “the best minds in measurement science fight it out”, and there can only be one winner. One of their foes comes right out of the wrestling ring, too – that’s “Le Grand K”, once the world’s master kilogramme, but now, it seems, shedding weight alarmingly.

By the end registering each new advancement started to leave me breathless, as one possible climax followed another with more frequency even than in Isolde’s Liebestod. It made you wonder if there was another side to be found in this battle with precision, a sort of Slow Food movement of measurement. If there is, and it has an unofficial headquarters, it must be in the Cairo taxi where du Sautoy admitted to being flummoxed by a speedometer reading both miles and kilometres. Cairo traffic being as special as it is, he was prompted to a truly jaw-dropping admission – that he’d never understood the first thing about how shoe sizes are measured. The germ of something there, surely? BBC Four, take note.

Registering each new advancement began to leave me breathless, as one possible climax followed another more frequently even than in Isolde’s 'Liebestod'


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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I'm a maths and physics geek, and loved Marcus du Sautoy's Music of the Primes RI Christmas lecture series some years ago. He's also done a few documentaries on broad maths topics. His 'Precision' documentary series, however, has just unbelievably dull and uninteresting. I guess there's only so much you can say about the measurement of time and distance (episode 1) without getting too deeply into special relativity. But I really expected more from mass and moles than a quick look at the Universal Kilogram, followed by a grossly simplistic gloss over Avogadro's Number. I think I'll give the rest of this series a miss. I'm sure it was nice for Marcus to get to visit the Pyramid's on the licence fee payers' money and all, but the material content of this series has been very dull and dumbed down indeed. Nowhere near the high standard I'd come to expect of a Marcus du Sautoy or a BBC production.

Given the programme is about precision, the man does not seem to know how precision relates to accuracy. What can you expect from a mathematician?

A DISTINCT LACK OF PRECISION Marcus du Sautoy’s third programme in “Precision: The Measure of All Things” on BBC4 was a disgrace. A professor who accedes to voicing a script containing “This programme is about ENERGY, a difficult and dangerous FORCE that comes in many forms” shows scant regard for precision of thought and expression, which are surely essential for the public understanding of science (I believe that’s the title of his chair). Energy and Force are connected physical concepts, but are not synonymous. That is basic school physics. That crass sentence came within the first 118 seconds of the programme, to be precise, and set the tone for much of what followed. Have a look at 20’ 39” where Du Sautoy assembles a travesty of a replica of Alessandro Volta’s voltaic pile by placing (1) a copper disc, with (2) a zinc disc on top, and then (3) a paper disc soaked in acid on top of that. In the script he declared that arrangement to be a cell. It was wrong. The sequence is (1) then (3) then (2). The acid comes between the dissimilar metals; as Galvani had discovered when working on frogs legs. Du Sautoy recounted that anecdote but had clearly failed to learn the lesson that it conveyed. Du Sautoy is used in programmes like this for his celebrity; others write the scripts. However, even actors in soaps will amend script lines for better verisimilitude. Du Suatoy appears to bring no personal knowledge to the script. His programme was wrong in several significant respects and did a great disservice to public understanding (as opposed to public awe) of science.

I agree the the professor lacks credibility. It is difficult to believe that he got where he is when he makes so many procedural and factual errors, but what distracts me the most is his inability to pronounce two words critical to this series. He can pronounce neither Nucleus nor nuclear. His ignorance in this matter destroys credibility and is deeply distracting. His mispronouncing of these words is as bad as George Bush, surely the most ignorant of all America's presidents.

Also in the final episode what he referred to as a 'little lightbulb' is in fact called a diode which he didn't seem to know.

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