Tomorrow’s World: a Horizon Special, BBC Two, review


Tomorrow’s World: a Horizon Special, BBC Two, review Sarah Rainey reviews Tomorrow’s World: a Horizon Special, an edition of the BBC Two science series in which Liz Bonnin looks at some of the radical inventions of the 21st century.

By Sarah Rainey 11 April 2013 • 10:00pm

Ready to launch: Liz Bonnin looked at radical inventions of the 21st century in BBC Two's Tomorrow’s World: a Horizon Special. Ready to launch: Liz Bonnin looked at radical inventions of the 21st century in BBC Two's Tomorrow’s World: a Horizon Special. CREDIT: Photo: BBC

If you tuned in to Tomorrow’s World: a Horizon Special (BBC Two) hoping to see black-and-white reruns of Raymond Baxter talking to a robot or Judith Hann testing hovering cars, you’ll have been disappointed. Because, alas, last night’s Horizon special wasn’t a return to the BBC’s flagship science show. Instead, it was a one-off snapshot of the inventions and discoveries transforming life in the 21st century. Sound exciting? I thought so. But the hour that followed was more confusing than anything else.

Presented by Liz Bonnin (the Irish one off Stargazing Live), the show whizzed through four areas of science that are changing our world: space, biotechnology, materials and energy. From a $20 million race to the moon to making ethanol from genetically modified bacteria, levitating frogs and drugs that are spun in a candyfloss machine, barely a minute passed without another astonishing revelation.

We met Andre Geim, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who discovered graphene – a material so strong that a hammock just one atom thick would hold a cat – using a roll of Sellotape. Then there was Cesar Harada, who builds remote-controlled boats to clean up oil spills; Michael Pritchard, founder of Lifesaver Systems, which uses sewage technology to purify water; and Prof Bob Langer, whose tissue regeneration work has helped 100 million cancer sufferers.

It was a whirlwind approach; and not one that lent itself to understanding complex areas of science. There was a sense the show was trying too hard to impress, jumping about from experiment to experiment in a bid to capture a younger audience. Bonnin spent most of the programme striding around an aircraft hangar looking like Lara Croft. The experts she spoke to were mostly trendy, leather jacket-wearing bloggers and tech writers.

There were some redeeming features. A highlight was watching the experts trying to define ridiculously named specialisms, including “quantum optics” and “plasma physics” (nope, no idea). And it was refreshing to see so many female scientists on screen.

Sadly, the rushed format meant the show lacked the gravitas of its Seventies namesake, and there was far too much to take in in just an hour. But it left us with some fascinating insights. Within a year, we could see other nations landing on the moon; sustainable replacements for fossil fuels; even a cure for cancer. “It is,” as Bonnin said, “an exciting time to be alive”.

These days, makers of history programmes are burdened by the need to make the past seem modern. You can imagine the discussions. “Let’s generate flashy visuals!” “Why don’t we hire a load of out-of work actors to appear in implausible reconstructions because no one has any imagination any more!”

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