12 February 2003

Reality science?

People find other people endlessly fascinating. And not any particular sort of people; pretty much anyone will do.

Although I have never watched a single minute of Survivor (I was living without a television in Australia when the first series was making waves), there is no escaping the prevalence of “reality” television. There are the dating shows (Elimidate, The Fifth Wheel, and lots more), the home makeover shows (Changing Rooms and its American successor, Trading Spaces, and all of its third generation imitators, like While You Were Out and Surprise by Design and even, almost unfathomably, the rock celebrity Rock the House), and the “stick strangers together and hope they hop into the hot tub” genre (The Real World, The Surreal Life, Road Rules, High School Reunion).

Now setting aside that most shows place people in profoundly “unreal” situation, the main attraction seems to be the chance to see (initially) unfamiliar personalities in action, making choices, interacting, and in conflict.

Look at entertainment or sports, and again, there is a strong fascination with the personalities involved, and not just the game or the art or the work. Yeah, sure James Lipton says Inside the Actor’s Studio is an exploration of acting craft, but there’s little doubt that it has appeal beyond that because people are interested in the opinions and experiences of creative folks, not just their technical skills.

Then you flip to science programming and you see... plants, animals, the food chain, exploding stars, and lots of computer animation to explain the theoretical bits. Actual scientists are scarcely seen.

Maybe this isn’t a good strategy, considering that there is ample evidence that the level of knowledge about science in the general public could be better (to put it mildly). Maybe a way to get people interested in science is to show off scientists as having interesting people in interesting situations facing problems to which other people can relate. Surely the problems faced by researchers must be as engaging as chefs-in-training.

Yes, that’s right. Here in the U.S., specialty cable channels The Food Network is running a show called Cooking School Stories, which shows the “true life” struggles of students becoming chefs.

Why not Grad School Stories? Follow grad students as they try to balance their supervisors insistence they work at the bench with their other demands in their life?

“Can Carol finish her thesis? Will Jim's paper be accepted in Nature, or will it be scuttled by reviews from a competing lab? What happens to Yang’s research project when research funding runs out before its finished? Stay tuned...”

Or perhaps Iron Scientist. Give two researchers an experiment and see who is able to perform it faster and get better data. “Whose protocol will take it all?”

I think I have an untapped vein here. Maybe I should form my own production company.

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