Even those who spent their secondary school science classes trying to melt their pen over a Bunsen burner knows what gravity is. It’s one of the basic scientific concepts that’s drummed into us from a young age. So no need for a 90 minute documentary on it, right? And yet people still get the classic hammer and the feather experiment wrong. Ask them why the hammer hits the ground first, and they’ll reply ‘because it’s heavier’ (of course, it’s nothing to do with weight – it’s all about wind resistance). “So even basic commonsense ideas of gravity sometimes are wrong,” Professor Jim Al-Khalili says, as we chatted to him ahead of his new BBC Four documentary, Gravity and Me: The Force That Shapes Our Lives.
But Gravity and Me doesn’t just deal with commonsense ideas of gravity – like the best documentaries, it starts with the basic concept and then drags you in deeper and deeper, until Al-Khalili himself was struggling to wrap his brain around some of the most cutting-edge theories. “It gets to this point where even I’m thinking ‘whoa, hang on a minute, that’s just blown my mind’,” he says. “And I quite like that. I like the audience to think ‘oh, Jim’s struggling as well! That’s fine, then I can struggle too’.”
Professor Al-Khalili thinks that people will be surprised to learn that gravity, that hundreds-of-years-old theory, is still at the cutting edge of science. “In order to understand what’s inside a black hole, if we want to understand how the universe is expanding, that requires us to understand gravity, and that’s a surprise.” Newton’s falling apple is not the beginning and end of science’s interest in gravity – these days talking about gravity means you get to use the phrase ‘curvature of space-time’, which is always fun. “Most people won’t be aware that times runs at different rates because of gravity... It’s not just that force that keeps us stuck to the ground and keeps the moon in orbit around the Earth, there’s much more to it than that.”
Like all the best science documentaries, Gravity and Me starts off simple, before gradually lowering the viewer down the rabbit hole. “I absolutely abhor the term ‘dumbing down’ because that suggests that the audience is dumber than you,” Al-Khalili says. “I’m not talking down to people at all in the programme, I’m just explaining a subject in a language that’s not technical and I’m leaving out the detail that would require months and years of studying for people to appreciate.” The key to making science accessible, he says, is simply finding the right language and analogies to explain tricky concepts.
And it’s crucial to him that science be accessible, and not some hallowed, impenetrable institution. Al-Khalili sees no reason why science shouldn’t be as much a part of popular culture as going to the cinema or watching the football. “By making these documentaries we’re showing that an enjoyment or appreciation of science, learning how the world works, is fulfilling in and of itself.” And once that’s the case, then more people will take an active interest in science.
“We need to have a more scientifically literate public,” Al-Khalili says. “There is an anti-science sentiment in many countries where science is feared or treated with suspicion or simply not believed. The old ‘we’ve had enough of experts’ business. And yet the public do need to know about science.” He despairs that, in the 21st century, so much of the voting public – and the people they would vote for – are so dismissive of science. “I’d love to make a programme where I just show how silly and wrong-headed some people are,” he laughs, only half-joking. “It’s the 21st century and yet we still have people who are anti-vaccination, people who deny that climate change is being caused by humans, people who are still creationists who believe the world came into being 6000 years ago. In the light of so much progress and so much scientific evidence people are still holding out.” But he doesn’t blame the general public.
“I guess a lot of the blame must fall on the shoulders of science itself. Scientists are not getting their message across. You can’t just shout at people and tell them ‘listen, I’m clever, I’ve been working on this for years and I know what I’m talking about, you haven’t and therefore you’re wrong’. That’s not going to persuade anyone, no matter how appealing and attractive that approach might be. We have to find ways of persuading people how we’ve come to know what we know, I think. So telling stories like the story of gravity and showing how it’s a gradual process, you think you know it and then someone else comes along and says ‘no, actually, that’s not quite the right way of thinking about it, this is better, this is more accurate’. Even today we’re learning stuff. Even subjects that you think are cut and dry are alive and still in development.”
Al-Khalili is passionate about ensuring that science thrives in the UK. As a professor at Surrey University he was surprised but delighted to see admissions for physics double despite the introduction of the £9,000 tuition fees a few years ago, but he’s still concerned about the low numbers of women in STEM. More than anything else, though, Brexit is the looming threat hanging over British science – and Al-Khalili is deeply worried about the effect it will have.
“I already know a couple of my colleagues in the physics department are going back to Europe because they don’t feel that their long-term career is in the UK. A lot of our research students and post-doctoral researchers come from all over the world and I think the way the UK is moving just makes us less of a welcoming and inclusive place, so we will get fewer good scientists coming to work here. And of course a lot of research grants are funded by the EU, there are a lot of joint projects with the EU.
“I’m not saying that we’ll no longer be allowed to be part of CERN, the Large Hadron Collider, or the European Space Agency’s missions, we’ll find other ways of being involved. But these are close collaborations that are going to have to be unpicked and rebuilt post-Brexit, in a way that’s not healthy for science, not healthy for the collaborative way in which science works. The UK will not be seen as so inclusive. It’s all very well saying ‘we’re strong enough, we can go it alone and we do good science’, but science is a collaborative process, it’s not about doing things alone or competition between us and them. It’s about sharing of knowledge and I think Brexit is going to make it a lot harder.”
Gravity and Me: The Force that Shapes Our Lives broadcasts on BBC Four on 28 March (tonight!) at 9pm.