BBC’s Science Club with Dara O Briain

December 6, 2012 • 10:51 am

I’ve always been a fan of Dara O Briain—well, at least since I’ve known of this “strident” atheistic comedian and science love, which has been about a year.  Reader Tom told me that not only did O Briain have a new show, “Science Club” on the BBC, but that the first episode was on YouTube. (Watch it now folks, because once the Beeb finds out, it’s gone).

Further, the episode is on genetics and inheritance, and the special guest my old friend Steve Jones (quite eloquent, as always), as well as several other guests and talking heads.

It’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast, with some glaringly disparate bits (e.g., the interpolated history of the bicycle), and the discussion of epigenetics was muddled and overblown, but overall I liked this episode.  The science is pretty good, and the discussion of whether the Human Genome Project has lived up to its hype is something one doesn’t often see in the popular media.

18 thoughts on “BBC’s Science Club with Dara O Briain

  1. The opening cartoon is based on a very long conversation with me. (they gave me a credit!) The series got better and better.

  2. I make everyone I meet watch O’Briain’s “Get in the sack” sequence. If they don’t find it funny then we can’t be friends.

    1. Yes, that was hilarious! I have occasionally used that phrase in conversation when it seemed appropriate but, alas, the targets have never understood the reference.

  3. highly recommended:

    Dara O’Briain’s school of hard sums

    8 part math problem series with Marcus Du Sautoy.

    last I checked, all but S01E07 were on youtube, not sure why.

  4. It looks like great fun – I want to see the series. 🙂 I roll my eyes at the epigenetics segment though; so much hype that I occasionally wonder what planet the epigenetic folks live on.

  5. My favourite Dara O Briain clip, talking about homeopathy, alternative medicine and science reporting in the media. Great Stuff!!

  6. Episodes 2, 3, and 4 are on YouTube as well. Episode 3 is on extinctions, and has Richard Fortey. It is a bit uneven as well, not enough Fortey on trilobites and too much random stuff (on the history of the shotgun for example). Still, rather enjoyable.

    I generally find it isn’t hard to find Beeb programming on YouTube (there is Attenborough galore, all of HIGNFY and QI, etc.), I get the impression they do not really mind the rest of the world seeing their better programming.

    1. I was wondering where I could get some of that fire water I didn’t notice the brand name when I was watching the brain-liquidising episode. Absolute (and un-denatured) alcohol is so difficult to find these days. On the other hand, nearly absolute alcohol and (say) Plaster of Paris powder shouldn’t be quite so hard to get hold of.
      Oh, only 88% v/v ; how wimpish. (176 US proof, which would be about 150 proof UK. Does gunpowder work differently in the US or something?) But the Plaster of Paris trick should still work.
      I find the use of Gregorian-monk-type chanting as a background to the booze’s advert moderately amusing. But I did read the sleeve notes to “Carmina Burana”, so it’s not too surprising.

  7. Not that it has anything to do with the main content of the show, which I enjoyed, but the comment about how a bicycle self corrects to stay upright and moving in the same direction still being a mystery was a little bump for me. It is well known how this occurs, though I have to admit that there is very little published scientific research on this subject that I am aware of, and what little I have seen is pretty poor.

    1. Does the bicycle self correct? I thought the rider continually made small (mainly unconscious) steering changes to stop it doing what it desperately wants to do – fall over.

      1. Yes, bicycles and motorcycles self correct to stay upright and moving, more or less, straight. It has to do with the geometry of the front end and how a two wheeled vehicle with the wheels in a tandem arrangement steers.

        Steering a bike is much different than steering a four wheeled vehicle like a car. In a car you turn the front wheels in the direction you want to go and that is the direction you go. And as long as you keep pointing the front wheels that way you continue to go that way.

        Steering for a bike is a two step process. In order to turn you have to lean the bike. The best way to lean a bike, least effort most precision, is to turn the front wheel in the opposite direction that you need to turn/lean. If you want to turn to the left you need to lean the bike to the left, so you turn the front wheel towards the right. This is called countersteering. What happens is that the front wheel moves out from underneath the bike, so the bike falls over the other way. Once you have reached the lean angle needed to negotiate the turn you turn the front wheel back to straight. If you don’t your lean angle will continue to increase until you are sliding on your side down the road. In order to stop turning you then need to turn the front wheel to point in the direction you are turning. The front wheel then moves back underneath the bike and brings the bike back up towards vertical, at which point you point the front wheel back to straight ahead.

        Now, there are all kinds of details of course. On a bicycle the ratio of the riders weight vs the bikes weight makes it fairly easy to make the bike lean by just shifting your body around, but it is still easier and more precise to actively use countersteering. With a motorcycle it is the only effective way, even if a person doesn’t realize what they are doing. Another detail is that at very slow speeds countersteering does not work. When the front wheel moves back underneath the bike it is actually picking the bike up, which takes energy of course. There has to be enough inertia in the system for that to happen. The speed when countersteering becomes possible varies per the design of the bike, weight of rider, tires etc. For a bicycle probably around 5 mph (just a guess), for a motorcycle more like 15 to 20 mph.

        Back to self correcting. The steering geometry of bikes is designed to be self correcting by taking advantage of countersteering. If the bike begins leaning to the left the front wheel naturally turns to the left, which causes the bike to move back towards upright. You can easily demonstrate this by holding a bike stationary and upright by the seat or frame, then lean the bike. The front wheel will turn to point in the direction of the lean. Also, get going on your bike at a steady speed then take your hands off the bars while continuing to pedal. Watch the front wheel carefully. You will notice that when the bike leans to one side on a downstroke that the front wheel turns that way, and that the bike is moving in a gentle weave. Another example, get going at a steady pace on your bike, then consciously and deliberately use countersteering. But be gentle at first. Bikes are so light and the tires so narrow that it doesn’t take much force to get a response.

        A common bicycle trick at carnivals is a bicycle that has the steering geometry changed so that countersteering does not work. If you can ride it a certain short distance you win money. I’m sure someone has won, but I have never seen anyone win the money. The typical result is instant crash.

        With a motorcycle in decent condition, if you had a throttle lock to maintain constant speed, you could set the motorcycle off in a direction and it would keep going that way by itself until it ran out of gas. Or, you could set it turning and it would continue to go in circles at the same radius you started it turning at until it ran out of gas.

        1. Just happened to be cycling and listening to a podcast last night. They talked about the bike/balance thing. It’s Skeptics Guide to the Universe #383. Here’s a link –

          Interesting discussion about consciousness as well.

  8. I’d quite like to watch someone tell Steven Rose to get in the fookin’ sack (not for his brief comments in this show, but for lying like a creationist over many years)

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