Around the World in 60 Minutes was a hybrid of a programme – part “what’s it like to be an astronaut?” and part travelogue. The two strands of the programme were woven together by looking at what you see during one orbit of the International Space Station – which takes 90 minutes to go round the Earth. The travelogue side of it went to about a dozen different places round the world, in the direction of the orbit, and told us something about the place and an interesting stat or two. For instance at Greenwich they talked about the meridian, and how in some sense the charts produced by the British after longitude was formalised were the GPS of their day. There was also a distinct environmental message to the whole programme – for instance they visited Brazil where they talked about the Amazon rainforest and how it’s the lungs of the planet. Brazil has had laws against deforestation for decades, but it’s only since they’ve put up a couple of satellites to keep watch over the forest that they’ve been able to enforce the rules. Now any deforestation can be seen by comparing images and the landowner can be fined. But the rainforest still loses something like 450 acres of forest every orbit of the ISS (I think that number’s right, it was something close to that anyway).
This travelogue stuff was interspersed with footage from the ISS (both inside and out) and interviews with an astronaut who’s been to the ISS. The emphasis here was strongly on how cool it is to go to space although they did mention things like nausea in microgravity being a problem initially, and talked a bit about the difficulties of getting in and out for space walks. But overall it felt a little like a recruiting film in these bits 😉 There were also sections about the sorts of scientific experiments that are done in space, like taking viruses up because once they’re returned to earth you can make better vaccines (tho I don’t think I followed why that happened).
It wasn’t quite what I’d expected from the description – I think I was expecting more travelogue and less recruiting for astronauts. It was cool tho, in its own hippy sort of way 🙂
Another quirky one-off programme that we watched last week was Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters. This was presented by Tom Holland, who opened the programme with a description of how much he was fascinated by dinosaurs when he was a small child. It went on from there to look at how a variety of different cultures have interpreted the fossilised bones they discover – what they made of dinosaur bones.
His main theme was that even though we now know most of the stories are wrong, they’re still attempts to explain these bones and most have some element of truth (or at least you can see where they came from). For instance there are myths from Native American societies that live on the Great Plains that talk of huge birds with teeth and sea snakes with feet that lived a long time ago in a different age of the world when there was water over the land. And if you look at the fossils you find in the area then you can see that once it was a shallow sea (lots of sea creatures), with pterodactyls and aquatic dinosaurs.
He didn’t just stick to dinosaur bones – several Greek myths might have come from discoveries of large mammal fossils. He suggested that elephant skulls look a bit like one-eyed monsters, because of the gap in the skull for the trunk which might look like an eye socket. Back before the Greeks knew what an elephant was perhaps they told stories of the cyclops to explain these bones. But the most striking Greek one was his suggestion for where griffins originate. There aren’t any dinosaur fossils in Greek territory, but if you go out along the silk routes towards China, then there are fossils in the Gobi desert of dinosaurs – they are beaked, and have four legs (with claws) and even nests of fossilised eggs. Stories about these bones could easily have been the original travellers’ tales about griffins.
As well as these older myths Holland also talked about the first more scientific attempts to figure out what dinosaur bones were. He visited Crystal Palace and looked at the dinosaur reconstructions there – which to modern eyes look ludicrously wrong, with their heavyset clumsy looking frames. And he did note that there are still many things we don’t actually know and are still just extrapolating according to our own prejudices.
This was a fun programme, it covered quite a lot of ground and all with a sense of humour. Although it did at times get a bit too carried away with itself (lots of “surely it must’ve been based on this!!”) but mostly it stayed the right side of the line, and anyway it wasn’t taking itself too seriously.
Other programmes watched this week:
Episode 2 of Unnatural Histories – series about human influence on areas of the world that we traditionally think of as “untamed nature”.
Viking Art: A Culture Show Special – programme about the current British Museum exhibition, tho the programme concentrated more on Britain than the exhibition does.