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Posts Tagged ‘Horizon’

I have just spent the last week showing my Physics students the wonderful BBC Horizon interview with Richard Feynman “The Pleasure Of Finding Things Out”. I vividly remember seeing this interview myself when I was 17. I already knew I wanted to go into physics, but this interview confirmed what I already knew, that physics was the subject for me. Thankfully for all, the interview is available in its entirety on YouTube.



When I introduce the video, I also quote what Brian Clegg says about Feynman in his introduction to the chapter on Quantum Electrodynamics in his book Light Years.


Richard Feynman, the magician


Ask a person in the street to name the two greatest physicists of the twentieth century and they will almost inevitably come up with Einstein. The second name, though, might prove harder to pin down.

Ask a physicist to come up with the top two and there will be no hesitation – or at least, if there is any hesitation, it will be over which name to put in first place.

The name that ranks alongside Einstein will be that of Richard Feynman.

The title of my blog comes from the words Hans Bethe (who won the Nobel prize in Physics for his work on nucleosynthesis within stars) said about Feynman. The quote in full is


There are two types of genius. Ordinary geniuses do great things, but they leave you room to believe that you could do the same if only you worked hard enough. Then there are magicians, and you can have no idea how they do it. Feynman was a magician.

Enjoy this wonderful interview with a truly remarkable physicist. And, if you want to read more about the crazy adventures he got up to in his colourful life, then read his autobiography ‘Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman


Feynman’s autobiography “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman” is a hilarious read


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On Friday (20th of January) I was called by the BBC in Cardiff to ask me if I would talk about the success of the 2nd series of Stargazing Live (this is a link to the interview, I’m on about 25 minutes into it), and also to summarise the events going on in the Wales National Museum in Cardiff on the Saturday. Yesterday I became aware, through Nick Howes (@NickAstronomer on Twitter), of a twitter “storm” going on between fans of Stargazing Live and the Daily Mirror TV critic Kevin O’Sullivan (@TVKev on Twitter) due to this article, in which he criticised Stargazing Live. Then, this morning I got another call from the BBC, this time asking me to talk tomorrow about an article by Jim Shelley in yesterday’s (Monday 23rd January) Daily Mirror. In this article Jim Shelley lists the Top 25 things he learned from the series. The BBC asked me to choose 10 to talk about tomorrow, and to talk in more detail about 4 of them.

I am delighted that the BBC Stargazing Live series has been such a success. Although Brian Cox comes in for quite a bit of criticism these days, I think one should interpret that as a mark of his impact and success. I have never been a fan of Patrick Moore, even when I was a teenager I found him irritating, and now I find him more so. Brian Cox has an easy, down to earth, unpretentious way of explaining things. Some of his basic astronomy mistakes frustrate me, but then again he’s never done a course in astronomy or astrophysics, so considering this he does a very good job.

One shouldn’t underestimate the impact a good TV programme or series can make. My own lifelong passion with astronomy and cosmology was ignited by a BBC Horizon programme I saw in January 1977 called “The key to the Universe”.

The Horizon programme that got me hooked on astronomy

I vividly remember, as I watched this 50 or 60 minutes of TV, a realisation that I wanted to study this fascinating subject. 32 years on, the subject still keeps me awake at night with wonder and excitement, and I feel very lucky to be paid to do something I’d gladly do for free.

So why did Kevin O’Sullivan have such a go at BBC Stargazing live? My own interpretation of his article, which his subsequent comments on Twitter seem to confirm, is that he was being deliberately provocative. I am in no position to comment on whether this is good or bad journalism, but it is certainly something I do on occasion – make deliberately provocative or outrageous statements to elicit reactions. Judging by the flood of traffic on Twitter about his article, @TVKev certainly did provoke considerable reaction.

In an age of multi-channel TV, there should be room for both the most highbrow and lowbrow TV. I enjoy, from time to time, watching the most mindless TV like Celebrity Big Brother or Snog, Marry, Avoid (that one with my daughters), I don’t spend all my time solving the equations of General Relativity or watching science documentaries.

That the BBC Stargazing Live series got 4-5 million people tuning in on BBC2 is a remarkable achievement. The fact that some of them may have been teenage girls with a crush on Brian Cox is irrelevant, but yet another reason he’s preferable to Patrick Moore. Many academics make fun of those of us who try and engage the public in our subject. I do it because (a) I enjoy sharing something I find interesting with as wide an audience as possible and (b) I haven’t forgotten the TV programme that first got me interested in understanding the Universe.

The 4 “facts” from Jim Shelley’s list that I have chosen to go into more detail on are

  1. The age of the Universe and the age of the Earth
  2. That the Sun will swell up and become a red giant
  3. That we may one day return to the Moon to mine Helium-3 from its surface
  4. That we have been sending radio and TV signals out into space, announcing our presence to any intelligent civilisations out there

Which 4 would you have chosen?

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