Saturday July 22, 2006
Like any other reactionary old fart in his early thirties there’s nothing I find more life affirming than internet scare stories, ideally involving terrorists and paedophiles using Napster to destroy the British music industry, which is why I am so pleased to have one of my own: Theodore Gray, the man who managed to score over a kilo and a half of pure sodium metal off Ebay.
Now at school you probably dropped a crumb of sodium into some water, or rather, you watched your chemistry teacher do it, and the sodium reacted with the water to produce sodium hydroxide (nasty alkali) and some hydrogen gas. The reaction gave off lots of heat, which ignited the hydrogen, which made the little lump of sodium fizz around with a nice flame in a way that seemed implausibly dangerous for a fingernail of metal dropped into a small bowl of water.
Theodore Gray, like a total hero, got some friends over, with refreshments, and set about launching a kilo of sodium into his private lake.
The reasoning was as follows: as long as a fair amount of hydrochloric acid was sloshed in afterwards (“Muriatic acid at any hardware store”), then this would neutralise the sodium hydroxide, leaving only some slightly salty water behind. And there’s no law against making slightly salty water, is there, officer?
This isn’t quite how it worked out. There was an initial large explosion from the first chunk he chucked in, and then a series of secondary explosions caused by one fairly large wedge that was literally hopping across the lake. It was thrown 40 feet up into the air, then flew into the water at high speed, only to be thrown back out into the air by the resulting explosion. It only takes a few of these skips to get several hundred feet in a few seconds. The partygoers were 200 feet away (you can see the video at qurl.com/boom).
Now you might be asking: where’s the bad science here? Well the story is, this groovy scientist with a white beard craps all over the fakesters at Brainiac, Sky’s popular flagship science program which has just started its new series. Last week I accused them of faking content. In particular they had a bath blown up with caesium and rubidium, big brothers of sodium, and I said it was faked. They hedged, and then said: “We love big bangs and sometimes we’ll make an explosion bigger than we need to just because it’s fun but we always tell our viewers.” They couldn’t confirm if these experiments were faked. They couldn’t confirm if viewers were told if they were faked. The process of journalism is pretty boring to write about, but let’s just say, they worked hard to make me very nervous indeed about running with the story.
Now they’ve admitted that they definitely were faked. And they have also admitted that viewers were not told (remember: “but we always tell our viewers”). And they have admitted that they fake other stuff. In fact they were so blasé about this that at one point they were even going to give me a list of other examples, but now they’ve changed their mind about that.
And here is where it gets really elaborate: they don’t tell you explicitly that they fake stuff, but you are a fool not to assume that they fake their experiments. “The clue is in the title of the show, ‘Brainiac Science Abuse’, it’s an entertainment program, it’s being made for an entertainment channel, it’s to be expected from the show.”
Furthermore, on this program that trades on how reckless and crrrazy and dangerous it is, they now say that when things really are dangerous, they just fake them. And the undignified wriggling goes on. Brainiac claim they said “this is what happens if you stick rubidium in a bath” and then showed “a demonstration of what would happen.” (The clip and a full transcript are available at badsience.net, and they are very explicit that they are doing it for real). Give it up, seriously, put your hands up. “We may as well have done it” they say: an interesting approach to the scientific method. But of course they did do it: one of the scientists on Brainiac did drop these metals in a bath (a pretty easily replicated methodology), on camera, and unfortunately they didn’t blow the bath up, so it got canned. That’s life. How do they know that this “not exploding” was somehow “wrong” and the fake explosions they broadcast instead were what “should” have happened, without trying it?
Despite the fakery, of course, Brainiac gets massive ratings, and is praised in very high places for popularising science. So to me, this is a lot like the nutritionist question: is it okay to lie to people about science, if it makes them eat vegetables? But more than that, it’s a question of who do you want to be your mate: Fakeboy with his weak plastic explosions; or Theodore Gray, who buys a kilo of sodium on the internet, and gets some friends over for a party to chuck it in the lake?