Johnny Ball

You could be Johnny

I've just posted the following to this article about the tendency in the UK to see being bad at Maths (and Science) as a mark of pride.

It really annoys me every time a presenter on the news 'jokes' that they can't do maths or science. Melvyn Bragg on the usually excellent "in our time" is another. If you can't do it, then research your topic - or at least stay quiet!

I grew up with Johnny Ball. I really miss him on TV - he was enthusiastic and willing to find out about things which he didn't know about. Today's "science" shows are more about blowing things up in the microwave, or the caravan (yes, Braniac, that means you).

An honourable exception is discovery's mythbusters (UK site) - they don't always get the scientific terms right (misusing terms like force, pressure etc, the narrator in the UK is especially guilty of this) - but they have the sense of the scientific method, and of exploration.

On UK TV, there is no modern equivalent. We need a modern day Johnny Ball! (Maybe next year it won't be 'You could be Nancy', but 'You could be Johnny' - I can only dream)

I really like the idea. Each week, wannabe Johnny's would present a piece about some aspect of science. It'd need to be fun, accessible, as well as being good science. The panel would consist of, a non-scientist, a scientist (not Adam Hart-Davies!) and the 'Lloyd-Webber figure' - Johnny Ball himself.

Each week, Graham Norton would tell the contenders 'You could be Johnny'.

The theme tune would end with Jack Nicholson bursting through a door saying "Here's Johnny!"

The public would vote (usually on style over substance) and there'd be a 'present-off' between the two who had the lowest public vote, they'd explain some particularly gnarly bit of science or maths. Johnny would save one of them.

I could be a getting a little flippant here, but I'm deadly serious about the issue at hand. Personally, I think some sort of contest might be a lot of fun, as well as helping to increase interest in science and maths. It could work, couldn't it?

Reality TV

In the UK, we've had a spate of mind-numbing, lowest common denominator TV - which tends to fill the so-called newspapers with trivia. We have 'Big Brother', 'Love Island' and all sorts of other trash TV. (Fortunately, though I've avoid these - it's become easier to do so as the saturation coverage has become less pervasive) In India, they've aspirational 'reality TV': 'Scholar Hunt' is a show where people show their academic credentials to compete for a University place in the UK. A world apart.

This speaks volumes. In the UK, the 'popular culture' values 'celebrity' whilst disregarding the importance of Physics, Chemistry, Maths etc. Indeed, these subjects are often seen as something which isn't aspirational - In India, it's reversed. Over the long term, India has the right set of priorities.

Where are the scientific role models for children? Where is the modern Johnny Ball on TV? I used to love shows like 'Think of a Number' and 'Think Again'. Johnny Ball was one of the figures who helped to inspire an interest in science for me (along with 'the Charlie Brown book of Questions and Answers'!)

Come back to TV, Johnny!

Scholar Hunt, if done well, could transfer to the UK, perhaps with UK students competing for am expenses paid place at Harvard, Yale or MIT - in parallel with Indian students competing for a place at Warwick, Oxford, Cambridge or Birmingham (my old University, great place). The trick, of course, would be to ensure that the candidates were not seen as 'nerdy' - which would be the big temptation in the UK market - and that's exactly what should be avoided. It's a format which could work - annually, the students could be followed to show how they'd been getting on, and so each year you could look at the new candidates, and have a programme showing 'whatever happened to...'.

The main thing would be to keep it aspirational - to show that knowing things is enjoyable, useful, and is something which doesn't (necessarily) make you uncool. Every time (especially on American shows) I see some knowledgeable teenager, invariably they're presented as a social pariah, a nerd. Not good.

(The Charlie Brown Thing: I got this when I was about five, it must have been around 1978 - every year, a new book came out - I think there were about five of them. By the time I hit ten, these books were falling apart, I loved 'em!)

Update: The BBC has an article on the show, along with an interview with the winner, Arvind Aradhya. Meanwhile, back in the UK, it looks like Science exams are to be made easier again so that more people can get a warm fluffy glow by fooling themselves that they've got a deep understanding. If an examination doesn't adequately test those sitting it, the qualification achieved is devalued. Slashdot has noted the science examination story.