Scientific veracity and the magic of television

A tension between scientific veracity and the magic of television

By Niraj Lal

In 2018 I was invited to be the Guest Physicist for an episode of Aussie Inventions, a series produced by Northern Pictures for Foxtel. The episode focused on the Australian father and son team of William and Lawrence Bragg and their discovery of crystallography at Cambridge University.

I appeared in my capacity as a physicist and Visiting Fellow with the Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems at the Australian National University, and perhaps also as a graduate of Cambridge University, having completed my PhD in physics at the Cavendish Laboratory in 2012.

The host of the episode was comedian Matt Parkinson, and my involvement was to discuss the physics of X-rays, interference and Bragg scattering; the foundations of the work that led the Braggs to win the Nobel prize in physics in 1915.

The producers had procured a Geiger counter, a simple X-ray Image kit and a ripple tank as demonstrations to assist the shoot – the plan was for myself and Matt to discuss the science of X-rays, the physics of crystallography, and explore how the X-ray diffraction patterns led to the discovery of Bragg’s Law and the awareness of the molecular geometry of crystals.

We had also planned to use the X-ray kit to take an X-ray of a simple object.  The kit was set up by a Northern Pictures producer and we discussed how it would work, safety regarding radiation exposure, the hierarchy of safety protocols we would put in place, the use of the Geiger counter, the importance of lead sheeting, and set up of the X-ray source and the digital camera.

The shoot was progressing well; by lunchtime we had covered off a whole bunch of the science, with some excellent conversations and interactions along the way.   The only demonstration that hadn’t worked perfectly was the capturing of the X-ray image by the digital camera set up.

We were attempting to take an X-ray image of a simple object – a cigarette lighter, using a photographic plate and a digital camera.  For some reason, we were unable to focus the beam in the correct location on the plate – and were only able to observe a fuzzy image on the bottom left of the plate.  We tried a bunch of times – for maybe half an hour – moving the plate, aligning the beam, changing the focus of the camera, but with no luck – the images weren’t getting closer to what we had hoped for – the xray image of the lighter.

At this point, the Director of the shoot let us know that he had a backup image – that had been taken by someone else using the same apparatus and provided on the net – and we could perhaps grab some footage of us looking at it on screen as if we had taken the image.  He asked if I was ok with doing this – seeing that we had set the equipment up properly, and were obtaining images with our X-rays, just that they weren’t showing the detail of the lighter. He mentioned we could take these as a ‘safety’ and then come back at the end of the shoot to try and nail down a correct image.

At that moment, aware of the schedule of the day and that we still had to describe Bragg’s Law and film the ripple tank, and surrounded by the film crew and production staff, I made a decision that this would be ok.

We shot the sequence looking at the image from the net, and continued on with the rest of the shoot – which went well, if rushed. My flight from Sydney back home to Melbourne was due to leave around 4pm, and I had a hard deadline to leave the studios, so we never had time to try and re-shoot the x-ray image.

The Episode will go to air sometime in mid-2019, and I’ve been looking back on the decision, and wanted to write about it.

There is something false about the shoot. Something which is in contradiction with the principles of scientific veracity and honesty.

We weren’t recording formal data, nor making measurements to be published in the future in a peer-reviewed journal, for which the highest possible standards of integrity and veracity must be applied. But for the magic of television, and the expediency of the shoot, I agreed to film untrue scientific images for a show.

With hindsight, I would have disagreed. I would have instead either argued for omitting the scene from the final clip, or discussing on camera that science is tricky sometimes, and that it takes time to get good images and data. I think there would have been value in communicating that I was unable to get a good focused image – that the beam was divergent, or that the photographic plate was poorly positioned, or the digital camera unable to focus to the correct position. Science is like that sometimes.

But there is often little time to discuss these things in final publications, broadcasts or shoots.  And in the situation, I thought that perhaps the magic of taking an X-ray on camera with some very simple equipment, would be a lovely thing to communicate also. That with a simple bit of kit, one could recreate what the Bragg’s did more than 100 years ago.  There is value in communicating this too – the wonder of science and the ability of technology.

But not at the expense of communicating truth.

Perhaps it’s no big deal – and no-one probably cares really (or is reading this) – the segment of the episode will likely last less than 2 minutes and isn’t the focus of the show at all, but I wanted to write and apologise for my part.

The only similar occasion I think of was of David Attenborough’s narration of a 2011 BBC Nature documentary Frozen Planet where they filmed a polar bear mother nursing her cubs inside her den.  The footage previously showed the bear and her cubs traversing a glacier in the arctic, before cutting to footage of them in the den, followed by more footage of the bears outside. It was beautifully shot and a lovely sequence, but not entirely true – the footage of the bears in the den was at a different location of bears in captivity.

Was this acceptable? Was it better for the BBC to show this, than to have a discussion about the difficulty of locating cameras inside a polar bear’s den?  BBC defended the sequence, but did point to other footage that showed cameras being placed inside the den in captivity.  David Attenborough mentioned later that ‘It’s not falsehood, and we don’t keep it secret either’.

The circumstances are slightly different, and I’m yet to see the final edited sequence that we shot for Aussie Inventions, but for similar reasons, I’m writing this piece to not keep it secret either.

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