Tuesday 14 October 2014

Brian Cox's 'boyishly unfocused gaze of general wonderment' and The Ascent of Man

There's a good article on the Guardian's Science website today by Henry Gee, a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist. He writes about the physicist and popular science presenter Brian Cox's new 'ascent of Man' series Human Universe.
Cox talks about finding our place among the stars, when the ISS is hardly more than several solar-powered baked bean cans in low-earth orbit. Fewer than 20 people (all men) have set foot on any other body in the solar system – the moon – and none more recently than 1972. Plans to return people to the moon or go anywhere else are, to be charitable, at the pipe-dream stage. To talk of our place among the stars is at best premature, at worst hubristic. 
But that’s just a quibble, an unsightly pimple on what is a greater problem. Cox speaks, with the prerequisite Bronowskian awe and reverence, of our uniqueness as a species, that we are the only species capable of doing the things we do, by virtue of attributes such as language and writing. Cox turns his boyishly unfocused gaze of general wonderment from the heavens to the depths of antiquity, the growth of societies and trade and how writing pulled this all together.
Cox's programme is indeed a familiarly and depressingly linear, upward account of human evolution, full of questionable science and cod philosophy. Its teleology doesn't halt at the present but implicitly projects the path of the human essence out into the stars, as if that weren't all a bit last century.

In fairness it's very well put together and it's great that someone can make science exciting and accessible. In this respect Cox's talent is not in doubt. One can only wish that the ontology implicit within and propagated by such popularisations wasn't so very stupid.

Gee does a good job of humorously puncturing Cox's bubblegum science but I don't think too many will hear. Cox is the anointed successor to David Attenborough as the Voice of Science for the BBC and hence, to a large extent, for Britain.

Why is it always physicists these days who get to tell everyone what science is?