Bang Goes The Theory and the coffee-powered car

Friday 12 March 2010, 14:51

Jay Hunt Jay Hunt Controller, BBC One

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I should have learnt by now never to underestimate the Bang Goes the Theory team.

The first time they came to see me they brought a vacuum cleaner, an excitable presenter and boundless enthusiasm for science. They then literally climbed the wall. They used the vacuum to provide the suction to clamber up the stairwell outside my office with the casual throwaway line that they were keen to do the same thing again up the treacherously shiny face of the BBC White City building in London. And they did.

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It was the start of an exciting journey that put popular science right back at the heart of the BBC One schedule. Bang captured the audience imagination with its enthusiasm for making sense of the world. Seventy thousand people braved some pretty atrocious weather to meet the team and put science to the test at a series of roadshows.

Many more went online to pose a question for the charismatic Dr Yan or watch experiments they could try at home. From their rather magnificent home in a disused power station, Dallas and Liz tackled everything from the behaviour of cows to sound waves. And all the time, Jem went on building things.

This time round, Jem's surpassed himself. He's driven from London to Manchester in a car powered by nothing more than coffee beans.

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Before he started on his epic drive, Jem and his the team told me that this alternative fuel could get Jem's motor to 45kph.

That was their theory anyway. Until recently, they'd only managed to drive 5km altogether so the pressure was really on.

Well, they made it. Having faced what must have seemed like endless traffic jams and a few minor engine hiccups the car arrived in Manchester late last night, still in one piece but a little bit dirtier than when it first left.

On the way, in true Bang spirit, Jem was not only greeted by drivers tooting their horns and people waving as the car raced to its end but was helped by dozens of drivers (including a very helpful group of nuns) who came up with any number of creative solutions whenever the car faced any difficulties.

Today, his car will be the centrepiece at The Big Bang Fair, the country's largest science and engineering exhibition for young students.

That's a hugely exciting moment for him and for the team because this journey has embodied what Bang does best - show science in action. Alternative energy is a notoriously tricky thing to make interesting. Jem and his coffee power car might just have cracked it.

Watch out for the car and for lots more spectacular builds when the series returns on 15 March.

Bang Goes The Theory won't be ducking the difficult subjects. Dallas sets himself the challenge of explaining atoms with the use of a few mopeds and a beach and Liz looks at the lab data around whether we can live forever.

It's part of a new look for science on BBC One. Shows like Richard Hammond's Invisible Worlds and Jimmy's Food Factory are making difficult subjects engaging in the most entertaining way. And through the website we are also gathering real data of our own.

Thirteen thousand people (at the time of writing) have contributed data to a bold new experiment about brain training. Does it matter if you keep exercising the grey matter or does it not make any difference at all? We have a large enough sample to deliver some real insight. Watch out for Brain Test Britain - a Bang Goes the Theory special on BBC One soon.

So congratulations to Jem and the team. So far we've had a coffee powered car and a vacuum powered climbing machine. I am slightly terrified about what they might suggest next!

Jay Hunt is controller of BBC One

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Comments

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 1.

    Well done to the Bang team - it's good to see science back in the schedules.

    But it's all a bit Boys' Own Paper stuff, isn't it? At least 10% of the population actually do understand science reasonably well, and would love to have a proper programme that doesn't spend over half its time explaining that gravity pulls things together and water is made of hydrogen and oxygen.

    You do it for the arts all the time. Now it's time for science and technology to have a turn.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 2.

    I agree with John, lets have some programmes for adults. Its as if science and engineering are kiddy subjects. Assume, say, GCSE Science is known to your audience.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 3.

    Horizon seems to be back towards its best - it went through a very dumbed down era a few years back, though it has a way to go to beat how it used to be in the 70's and 80's; or maybe I was just dumber then and more in awe of it!!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 4.

    I would agree that there should be a regular adult oriented science programme. I woule even like to see a programme along the lines of "Tomorrow's World" where the latest scientific developments can be showcased. Science seems to be left to satellite channels these days and most of course then have an American bias as the shows are imported e.g. Mythbusters etc.

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    Comment number 5.

    I think the problem is that adult "science" has become very fragmented in terms of topic area...

    We have shows like Mythbusters aimed at producing the biggest crash or explosion possible with very little science - witness the results as grouped into only three areas - confirmed, plausible, busted.

    Next we have the "tech" shows like Click (which does not even make the main channels at all and is treated as news - eh??) and The Gadget Show on Five that only look at modern fast moving technology and web sites; these are probably the nearest to where Tomorrow's World would have been if it had continued. Now very little science at all.

    Then we have shows like Horizon and the new "Wonders of the Solar System" that try to look at physics, cosmology and astronomy, but the problem is that most new research has now gone way above the man in the street with multi-dimensional string theory, quantum chromodynamics and the like, so is a difficult area around which to build a programme.

    Chemistry is just as dull as ever (!) though the recent "Chemistry, a Volatile History" on BBC4 was excellent, if only a look backwards.

    Biology all seems to revolve around mapping DNA and finding what each piece does, so there's not much excitement for the average man in the street watching TV there.

    "Bang Goes the Theory" has its main threads as "vacuum cleaner up walls" type sequences, with very little adult real science in there in short sequences with the "Professor".

    So as a "Science" programme comissioner at the BBC, where should they aim - It's a tough one, I have to admit.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 6.

    Science is more about curiosity and how to foster it. I do miss Tomorrows world, but towards to end it showcased computer programs doing stuff more than a lateral way of thinking out a way to solve a problem.

    Any program that invokes a sense of curiosity in anyone is welcome.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 7.

    So why did Horizon not do an artical on placing solar panels on single garage roofs, and using the power generated to produce Hydrogen. Then convert a petrol car to dual fuel. The car starts on petrol, switches to Hydrogen (with a very slight loss of power) can be driven till the Hydrogen runs out before switching back the Hydrogen

    A study done 10+ years ago proved that over a year the garage roof would produce enough hydrogen to fuel pver 90% of the average persons comute to work.

    Feee power, simple and cheap no wonder the scheam was dropped

  • rate this
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    Comment number 8.

    "Not available in your area" on the video clips.

    What is this nonsense?

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    Comment number 9.

    As regards the science thing, I think the majority of non-scientists have little interest in science for science's sake. What interests most people is science used to solve a problem - and the more impressive that problem and solution are, the more interested we are.

    In other words, it's not science that gets people interested, it's engineering - actually using science to make things happen in the real world. Do we care that some boffin's made carbon nanotubes? Nope. Do we care that with a bit of work on carbon nanotubes, we could have a space elevator? Hell yeah! Do we care that someone's found a new way of splitting up DNA? Not much. Do we care that it can fix inherited diseases, or catch criminals? Oh yes. Do we care about a chemist working up some new kind of glue? Not really. Do we care that it's used to stick the wings on fighter jets? Now you're talking.

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    Comment number 10.

    'Bang goes the theory' annoys me a lot.... prime time, clearly expensive but utterly pointless. A typical show goes 'TONIGHT! WE ATTEMPT TO FIND OUT IF A PLANE CAN TAKE OFF POWERED BY JUST 4 JETS OF AIR!!!"... when the fact that the Harrier jump jet has been flying for nearly 50 years rather proves that, yes a plan can take off with 4 small airjets.

    I disagree with #5 comments about mythbusters. Its more than just making explosions. It has a clear scientific approach of hypothesis, experimentation and conclusion and the answers they come up actually answer questions that aren't blatantly obvious. One I found suprising was that fresh and frozen chickens do exactly the same damage to plane windscreens when fired at them thereby debunking a famous urban myth. Another proved that it was possible that 3 Alcatraz prisoners did actually escape the island on a raft made of rain coats.

    My favourite science show on the BBC used to be 'Rough Science'... sort of Scrap heap challenge crossed with the open university. It had a far better scientific grounding that bang goes the theory and was far more interesting. Poster #9 may be right that it was the engineering/problem solving side of that show that made it interesting rather than the theory but you can't have one without the other.

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    Comment number 11.

    The new Japanese home fuel cell for heating ,lighting and cooking seems like a great alternative to huge power generation plants - the
    fuel cells don,t need connection to a grid - Am I missing something obvious as to why there are no published plans use them in this country?

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    Comment number 12.

    "I think the majority of non-scientists have little interest in science for science's sake."

    Hence BBC Four, no? It's done Chemistry for chemistry's sake, even if it did slightly fall into the perennial trap of being about people instead of chemistry. I'm sure there's plenty more where that came from.

    At the other extreme BBC One came up with another cookie-cutter documentary about the solar system, more fancy visuals than accurate science. I turned off the second episode about 2 minutes in when every word in a sentence was spoken from a different camera angle and I got seasick.

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    Comment number 13.

    "The new Japanese home fuel cell for heating ,lighting and cooking seems like a great alternative to huge power generation plants"

    Massive problems for this technology. As it stands, the hydrogen comes from natural gas which isn't exactly a save the planet idea. Potentially it can come from other hydrocarbons today, but still a very limited resource. Theoretically it can come from electrolysis of water, but that requires massive amounts of electricity. Electricity today is far from green, and even assuming we had enough renewable sources, why would we convert it to hydrogen that has to be transported to the homes to be turned back into electricity?

    The fuel cells themselves are also an issue. They require a non-trivial amount of platinum. Not cheap and not plentiful, its hard to imagine how this rare metal is going to save the world. Nobody right now can afford a fuel cell on the scale needed to run a home or even a car, and the various trials are heavily subsidised. The manufacturers have been claiming they are about five years from being economical since about the time I was born. Don't hold your breath.

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    Comment number 14.

    @13
    Have you not heard of solid-oxide fuel cells ? Methane in one side, electricity and heat out the other. No platinum, no pure H2 either.

    Steve

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    Comment number 15.

    #14 Methane IS natural gas. Its chemical composition is CH4. One atom carbon, 4 of hydrogen. Breaking the bonds between the Carbon and the hydrogen needs energy (which is why solid oxide fuel cells only work at high temperatures) and the formation of new bonds between the Hydrogen and Oxygen in the air (makes water) and the Carbon and Oxygen in the air (makes CO2) produces more energy.

    Apart from not needing elemental hydrogen or platinum I'm not entirely sure what your objection to post 13 is. They still take fossil fuel in and put CO2 out. The only plus side is that they do it more efficiently than burning the stuff in an internal combustion engine.

    People's insistence on Hydrogen being this perfect green cheap fuel proves how bad science education is in the UK. 'Bang goes the theory' doesn't help either. 'TONIGHT! A CAR THAT RUNS ON COFFEE BEANS' sounds a lot more exciting than the more accurate 'a car that runs on bio-diesel made from waste coffee beans'.

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 17.

    If we discuss about fuel cells then it will become non stop topic. A fuel cell is an electrochemical cell that converts a source fuel into an electric current. It generates electricity inside a cell through reactions between a fuel and an oxidant, triggered in the presence of an electrolyte. The reactants flow into the cell, and the reaction products flow out of it, while the electrolyte remains within it. Fuel cells can operate continuously as long as the necessary reactant and oxidant flows are maintained. If we are buying any branded cars like Honda,Bmw and Nissan Cars, they don't make such a cars which is having fuel cells on it so they can save some petrol.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 18.

    Methane IS natural gas. Its chemical composition is CH4. One atom carbon, 4 of hydrogen. Breaking the bonds between the Carbon and the hydrogen needs energy (which is why solid oxide fuel cells only work at high temperatures) and the formation of new bonds between the Hydrogen and Oxygen in the air (makes water) and the Carbon and Oxygen in the air (makes CO2) produces more energy.

    Apart from not needing elemental hydrogen or platinum I'm not entirely sure what your objection to post 13 is. They still take [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator] fossil fuel in and put CO2 out. The only plus side is that they do it more efficiently than burning the stuff in an internal combustion engine.

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 20.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

 

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