A blind date with science

13th June 1997 at 01:00
SCIENCE IN FOCUS: MATERIALS. Channel 4, Tuesdays, 11.00-11.20am Block transmission June 17, 4.00-5.00am, Age range: 14-16

This new series from Channel 4 is a bit of a mixed bag as its four 20-minute programmes vary considerably in quality. You would not get 20 minutes' worth of useful viewing from all of them.

For your own enjoyment as well as your pupils', I can heartily recommend the third programme in the series, "The Periodic Table". This, with its fast-moving take-off of Blind Date, is an absolute hoot. A cunning mixture of fun and standard demonstrations reinforces the chemistry of the reactive metals and gases and their positions on the periodic table.

It features Lithium, well-oiled to keep supple, who has to choose between Earth goddess O (who did not get on too well with the fire brigade), feisty black Fluorine (full of aggression), and the noble gas Neon (who is so stuck up she "doesn't do anything"). He chooses Neon. Guess the reaction.

In between the glitzy bits are close-ups of standard laboratory tests using gas jars and deflagrating spoons and we see the elements' "addresses" on the periodic table. Regular watchers of the original TV programme may savour the joke more, though I suspect that it may be pitched over the heads of some pupils.

The value of this programme is primarily as revision of work already done, helping to make the memory link between the names of elements, their position on the table and their reactivity. It is too full of information to serve as an introduction to the topic.

The following week's "Models" is not nearly so cohesive, though parts will appeal and also be useful revision. Almost too fast moving, its groovy presenter Jason Bradbury - with shaven head, gold neck chain and skin-tight shiny suit - jumps from context to context and gabbles through the script leaving little time for slower brains to catch on to the ideas. He zooms us up in a light aircraft then down into the London Underground, to emerge at a snooker club to pot at a ball that is supposed to model the atom.

There is poor sound quality in places, such as the hard-to-hear commentary while flying and the muffled recording in the snooker club. These defects are tolerable if you're in your own home, but would stick out a mile in a classroom.

The basic idea seems to have been to show how scientists use simplified models to allow us to understand complex concepts, and that different models suit different viewpoints of a phenomenon. Unfortunately, this does not quite work.

The first two programmes in the series are bog-standard documentary and will bore many pupils rigid, particularly if they have seen too many car adverts and Western films set in Arizona. There is unashamed padding to grab the audience - shots of cars driving in "Rock Sculptures" and tourists gawping in "Grand Canyon".

The former only finally comes alive when a sculptress demonstrates how the hardness of different metamorphic rocks makes carving easy or difficult. The latter only moves out of the travelogue near the end, when a real scientist starts to explain graphically how the Grand Canyon was formed and we get some interspersed diagrams of tectonic plates.

The study guide costs Pounds 4.95 from Channel 4 Learning, PO Box 100, Warwick, CV34 6TZ. The series is repeated next term from October 21-November 18 at 9.00-9.20am

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