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Documentary Stupid
Yesterday at 8pm the BBC showed what purported to be a programme in the Natural World series on The Wild Places of Essex (I am not going to link to it in iPlayer for reasons that shall become clear.) It was a personal view by someone called Robert MacFarlane (who has just written a book) and it was, to be frank, absolute crap. It ought to have been called, The North Bank of the Thames or possibly just Rainham Marshes. The commentary was pretentious claptrap, and the photography nothing out of the ordinary - no comparison with Life or with the excellent The Great Rift. Essex Wildlife Trust - of which we are members - was acknowledged in the credits, but I don't think they will be very pleased that the only organisation to get a mention was, as ever, the RSPB - when the National Trust and the Eseex Wildlife Trust have some of the best (and best managed) sites in my adopted county. I assure Mr MacFarlane that there are lots of places in Epping Forest without a sign of humans, and lots of places in the county without a sign of either industry or urbanisation.


It was followed by an Horizon on infinity, in which no single mathematician seemed able to tell the difference between the concrete "two apples" and the abstract "2". I got fed up of yelling that "infinity" was, to all intents and purposes, a philosophical concept, albeit a useful one, at the screen. And by the way, no you cannot count to an infinite number because you will bloody well run out of time and universe.

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I 'WTF?'ed rather a lot at that Natural World thing. Still, I got a lot of knitting done while it was wittering on in the background. (I'd hoped for better, but it ... didn't.)

And the Horizon was also somewhat crap. Who thought that Steven Berkoff with an echo voice on all his 'pronouncements' was a good idea? Got another three rows done during that, too.

The answer is '42' anyway. As we all know.

Oh, and Happy Birthday as well!

Happy Birthday!

What a shame, because MacFarlane's book WILD PLACES was really excellent.

I must admit that after that pseudo-poetic known-nothing performance (full of near-lies about the Essex environment) I wouldn't trust a word he either spoke or wrote

Oh, and much thanks for the birthday wishes. Sorry if I sounded snappy, but this was one of the most boring and inaccurate natural history documentaries it has been my misfortune to see. He plainly knew almost nothing about the formation of the Essex landscape or about the hard work being done by a dozen organisations to encourage wildlife in Essex. There were only three creatures that I have not personally observed! It seemed to me that it was another of those occasions where if you knew nothing about the subject it might pass, but if you did, it was very, very annoying.

Edited at 2010-02-11 04:03 pm (UTC)

I may be wrong, but I have the feeling that Horizon's slide into dumbing-down began as soon as the BBC started making the programmes in conjunction with the Discovery Channel.

Possibly, but it must have been at least twenty years ago, which was when they started prattling on about the Gaia theory, Cold Fusion, and that chap who believed oil was formed by meteorites hitting the Earth. There were a lot of people who claimed, "They laughed at Galileo," which is my personal test for "this person is a looney."

At this point, "They also laughed at the cold-fusion guys" is a fairly withering comeback for that nonsense. But they had to have their 15 minutes of fame first.

The thing is - they didn't laugh at Galileo. They took him all too seriously, partly because they actually knew he was right.

Indeed. At first, there was the odd
one. By around ?10 years ago, I had stopped watching, on the basis that either
a) I would know something, anything, about the subject, and shout at the television
and not in a good way
, or
b) I would know nothing about the subject, and thus it would probably bore me, and if not, I would spend the whole programme wondering where the science ended.

Then, a couple of series ago, things changed. I saw a couple (I think on dreaming and earthquakes) that seemed to go back to the old values. Each series now seems to have one or two which are worth watching. Providing I avoid things which I know a lot about.

It's such a pity, because some of the early Horizons were mind-blowing. I remember watching the first one they did on "warm-blooded dinosaurs" with intense scepticism, until they came to a quite detailed examination of the predator/prey ratios in the Jurassic fossil record compared with both earlier ratios and with modern day mammalian ones. That convinced me.

Then it kept me abreast of plate techtonics, and of the discovery of the Black Smokers...

Oh, yes! I remeber the Black Smokers one.

I am also remembering, nostalgicly, 'the Horizon effect', whereby you could be taken on a jouney on a subject whereof you knew precious little, and every step of the way felt you were following the argument. And at the end feel bereft because you didn't have any way of explaining how you had reached that pinnacle.

Which is a great shame, because the time of that kind of Horizon has come! Not only can we re-watch the episode on iplayer, but we could also visit a website where the arguments are storyboarded. Ask questions. Be pointed at other websites.

*wanders off into a corner, muttering about TimeTeam and Who do you Think you are*

Actually infinity has quite a number of useful non-philosophical uses in mathematics, and there is a very clear distinction between aleph-0, the so-called countable infinity which can eb equated with the number of integers, and higher infinities like aleph-1. Cantor's diagonal proof shows clearly that you can have a number larger than the number of integers.

So no, this is not just a philosophical concept.

Well, I would argue that both numbers (unless allied with a physical object) and infinity are abstract concepts, and that theoretical, as opposed to applied, mathematics is itself a philosophical concept and not a scientific one.

You can have as large a number as you like, but it is still an abstract concept and not a physical fact. Until you have an infinity of atoms or bananas it remains a concept, and, I would argue, a philosophical rather than a scientific one. Furthermore, until you can design an experiment that proves infinity exists, it cannot be a scientific concept. Rather like the supernatural and god(s), in fact.

You don't need a physical object for something mathematical to be more than abstract. Issues of different infinities come up in algorithmic complexity theory about when (and if) computational tasks finish. All encryption systems are based on these results. So the fact that I can't crack your bank's passwords and steal all your money is reliant on the nature of infinity.

And does the square root of -1 exist? It's used throughout physics, electronics, signal processing etc. but other than giving it a symbol, i you can't touch it.

And does the square root of -1 exist?

Who knows? I would say not, except as the aforementioned abstract concept. This all comes down to the philosophical question as to whether something that cannot be detected but is thought about actually exists. Furthermore, things do not have to actually exist to be of use.

For instance, anger exists only as a behaviour pattern resulting from a flow of hormones and as a human mental concept - an emotion. It can, however, be of great use within human societies...

Which makes all of them, including i and infinity, more than just philosophy.

I think at this point we are coming down to semantics.

Even theoretical math is subject to the scientific method. You propose a hypothesis and subject it to testing, and if the tests don't work the hypothesis is abandoned. It's just that the tests in question are logical rather than physical -- but still, if your hypothesis* can be shown to prove that 1=2, it's invalid.

* That one can divide by zero, in this instance.

Pure theoretical math is subject (partially) to the scientific method, but 'tests' are by pure mathematical logic and are therefore self-referential.

It's the reason that many scientists (and mathematicians) do not regard mathematics as a science, though it is a scientific tool.

However, use of the 'scientific method' (itself an abstract concept until put into practice in individual cases) is not an argument for the actual existance of infinity, however useful that concept is in pure mathematics or the higher reaches of theoretical physics, which have to be completely speculative and nothing more than philosophy until actual experimental tests can be devised, or confirmatory observations made.

After all, there was nothing wrong with the math behind how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or how many years had passed since the Creation, based on Biblical tests.

Edited at 2010-02-11 09:06 pm (UTC)

I gave up watching Tv docs quite a while ago. It's such a shame - Horizon used to be the Beebs flagship science programme and now it's frequently embarrassing.

Also... by definition you can't count to infinity because when you reach "infinity" there will always be "infinity" plus one. That's not even that difficult a concept...

Oh dear.

Also... by definition you can't count to infinity because when you reach "infinity" there will always be "infinity" plus one. That's not even that difficult a concept...

To be fair, that was explained - but, apart from one gentleman who believed (and it has to be just a belief, as there is no experimental evidence either way) that when you eventually reached infinity it would reset to zero - they all talked as if it was possibly to keep on counting forever. Honest. After Destiny has closed his book and Death has put the chairs on the table and turned out the lights, we can still go on counting, heat death of the Universe and everything.

And yes, I know that was simply a way of explaining the concept, but the fact remains that it is still just a concept.

I suppose, theoretically, in the future it might be possible for an ultra-super-hyper-fast computer to do the counting but I agree with you. Infinity is an idea - one that can do some very useful things, but still an idea.

I have a friend who has been trying to get me to start watching Horizon again. Hde has been telling me that this series is Good (although I think this mostly means there are less acted out bits and fancy graphics...) I shall have to see what he thought of this one.

(Deleted comment)

I do, occasionally, actually complain to the Beeb, when it is something that actually matters. The last time it was an official complaint about references to Goths on Sunday. Quite a lot of us wrote in to protest about the equation of Goths with Nazis, and the idea that a Vatican investigator is an impartial witness about what he referred to as "black magic".

In this case, the posters on the PoV messageboards have already made my points extensively...

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