How Professor Jim Al-Khalili's Gravity App Went Wrong in Gravity and Me - And Why He Couldn't Be Happier

By Abigail Chandler on at

It’s rare that a science documentary comes with a twist ending, but Gravity and Me: The Force That Shapes Our Lives does just that – except it’s not intentional. The Time Warper app that Professor Jim Al-Khalili designed and rolled out to thousands of people while making the documentary went wrong, thanks to an error in his equations.

You’d expect most presenters to yell “CUT!” at this point and edit any mention of the app out of the programme. But Professor Al-Khalili was adamant that it stay in. We spoke to him about why mistakes like these are so important in science.

“That’s what science is,” he says. “It’s not about protecting your own opinion in the light of new evidence. Science is about making mistakes and learning from those mistakes. As soon as we discovered that I’d make a mistake in the equation for the app I was like ‘brilliant!’ The producers were saying ‘are you sure you want to be so honest?’ and I said yes. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. If I gave up science every time I made a mistake I wouldn’t have got very far at all. That’s the point. And it does highlight how science works, that science is about transparency, it’s about being prepared to throw away an idea or notion or theory in the light of new understanding or evidence or experimental result. It’s not like other ideologies or beliefs of religions where you will stick to your views no matter what, science is about going where the evidence comes from. So for me to say ‘whoops, oh dear, I thought I understood it but I didn’t, and now I understand it better’ is absolutely fine as far as I’m concerned. There’s no shame or embarrassment in it.

“If you don’t make mistakes then we wouldn’t progress because we’d all be stuck with our current ideas and not be prepared to give them up. You have to be able to say ‘I was wrong about that, that wasn’t the complete story, I now understand it a bit more deeply’, and that happened for me throughout the making of the programme. It wasn’t contrived or set up, it was actually in real time, in the making of the programme I learned a lot and made mistakes and moved on from there.”

Usually the purpose of a documentary is to teach the viewer something new – but it’s always nice when the presenter learns something along the way too.

Gravity and Me: The Force That Shapes Our Lives is now available to view on iPlayer.