The wonderful life after Doordarshan

Friday 31 July 1992

There are some rivetting science programmes on Star TV and BBC which should inspire Doordarshan to produce better programmes in this genre

Experiments on a raft: filmimg (Credit: Yousuf Saeed)FOR SCIENCE buffs television is no longer the wasteland it used to be.Though Calcutta Doordarshan's hardy staple, Quest, persists with questions like "what happens when liquid nitrogen is poured on water", and its two earnest Bengalis at a table format, a lot else has also come to pass. On the home front, Turning Point is demonstrating that TV can be visually interesting, even on a modest budget, and UGC's daily transmission tackles the heavy stuff (such as the abstract theory of quantum mechanics) but, unfortunately, usually in the two-persons-and-table format.

The good news as we all discovered late last year is that there is life after Doordarshan. Even a channel as frothy and vacuous as Star TV offers two perfectly interesting science magazines, Beyond Tomorrow, and Beyond 2000 (although its commerical breaks, every seven minutes, is a major irritant). BBC has Tomorrow's World and The Human Element, which is more on scientists than on science. Earthfile, too, often takes a five- minute look at something that is more science than environment as it did recently when it focussed on genetically engineered viruses which are destroying agricultural pests.

Defining science on what is essentially an entertainment medium is usually a lot more popular on western TV than it is in our hardcore science programmes. The UGC's approach is a straight, classroom approach, which even looks like a visual lecture: one person using a pointer on a blackboard.

A recent edition of Beyond Tomorrow, on the other hand, began with a medical technology story that would have appealed to everybody who wears glasses: a report on computer-guided laser surgery which corrects commonplace defects of vision. Whether you are near-sighted or far-sighted, you can shed your glasses through surgery which takes less time than it takes to be fitted for a pair of glasses -- not more than 10 to 30 seconds.

Other stories in this edition were about using radar on cars; using bugs that eat toxins to tackle an oil spill on a beach; a chilling story on how American forensic scientists nailed an American cannibal, 115 years after the incident, by studying the bones of his victims; and the latest in video game excitement: a power glove with 3D sensors that you can wear. You punch in the air, and the character on the screen replicates that action.

Beyond 2000 is a much longer programme and again looks at applied science, such as the possible domestic uses of a small nuclear reactor. Just how safe can it be made? There was a fascinating story in a recent edition on why Swedes are depressed: the weather makes them gloomy. When there is not enough daylight the human body produces too much of a hormone whose secretion is normally switched off in daylight. The treatment consists of exposing gloomy Swedes to two hours of bright artificial light in a room.

BBC's Tomorrow's World looks at the technology of the future that is already at our doorstep. Only its programme scheduling of late has not followed a regular cycle: recently, there was no edition of Tomorrow's World for over a week. Instead, we had many repeats of the same edition of The Human Element. This, again, is a fascinating series that does not stint on time or resources as it explores the lives, loves and motivations of some of the world's leading scientists.

A recent edition of The Human Element focussed on the man who pioneered the oral contraceptive -- Karl Jorassey. The research which made him famous (and presumably rich) was not, however, the chief focus of the profile. It dwelt on his later evolution as a writer of fiction, and the "search for pattern and meaning" which led him to establish a foundation for artists on his California estate. It also looked at the influences on his life, of his feminist professor wife, and of the suicide of his daughter.

The Human Element, unlike the other science programmes currently on television, has archival value. Some months ago it had focussed on the Curies. The programme would have been an excellent audiovisual resource for high school and college students.

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