Armchair geology

Whilst flicking through the channels this evening, I was musing that it had been ages since I’d seen some quality geology on the TV. Although there appears to be a resurgence in science and nature programming, very little of it has an Earth Sciences slant. In the 34 Horizon episodes aired since 2010, only one can claim to have had a truly rocky theme. All this got me wondering, why isn’t geology on our screens more often?

The easy sell
It’s always best to start with the exception to the rule. There are two branches of Earth Science that have universal appeal: dinosaurs and volcanoes.

Volcano Live was broadcast in summer 2012 and managed to eek out a week of live television by monitoring dormant volcanoes. By far the best bits were mini-documentaries from Volcanology research groups from around the UK, including a Bristol PhD alumni Dr Lorraine Field’s report from the Congo.

Volcano Live promo
Am I the only one who immediately thinks of Dante’s Peak?

The other smash hit of Earth Science TV programs is surely the CGI-tastic Walking With Dinosaurs. First aired in 1999, this big budget documentary series has since spawned a follow up series in Planet Dinosaur, books, a feature film and much to my astonishment, a worldwide arena tour!

The competition
The Nature & Science scheduling slots are dominated by wildlife. Animals lend themselves to TV, and projection of emotions; I defy anybody not to be moved by the elephants’ struggle against the drought as featured in the excellent BBC/Attenborough series Africa . This genre is also pretty much guaranteed action and this encourages audience participation (eg. Springwatch) which is something media-types consider of vital importance in this ‘multi-platform’ digital age.

Incredulous panda
“You can’t seriously tell me you’re going to watch a program about rocks, when you could be watching ME?”

The other big rival for airtime is space. With the massive draw of Prof. Brian Cox and infinite universes to play with, one could argue cosmo-geeks have an unfair advantage. Recent successes include Stargazing Live and Wonders of the Universe. It’s also telling that the nation’s favourite particle physicist can’t resist a play for a share in the Attenborough wildlife market, with his new series Wonders of Life.*

The people
Or in this case, the person. Love him or hate him, Prof. Iain Stewart has staged a one man campaign to sell geology to the masses and become the rent-a-geologist for the BBC. A quick glance at his Wiki page reveals an impressive list of shows that he has presented, and he is currently filming a new BBC series on the formation of our continents. It is quite refreshing to see that in his ten-year reign he has covered diverse range of topics such as climate science, landscape studies, and the history of geologists, but I can’t help but think it would be good for the public perception of Earth Science for a few more geologists to get themselves on TV.

The subject matter
So maybe Earth Science documentaries will never be able to pull in the same audiences as Splash or Miranda; however, in the last month on Freeview there have been documentaries on such obscure topics as compulsive horse hoarding and the Genius of British Woodworking, which just proves that esotericism is no barrier to getting a topic televised. If geology on TV is done well, it would probably convert previously uninterested parties…and after all, isn’t that the point of popular science?

*Actually a bloody fantastic programme.

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About Charly Stamper

I’m an ex-experimental petrologist.
I used to make pretend volcanoes; now I work in renewable energy

2 comments on “Armchair geology

  1. Great post Charly,
    I must say I agree, there are heaps of animal docos (although Attenborough is always great) but very few good geology ones. I really enjoyed Iain Stewart’s men of Rock but we get even less over here in Australia.

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