'I can't write an equation on
the blackboard, but I can allow words to speak.' This is how Jacques
Oliver, a journalist with the RTBF - the Belgian French-speaking
public channel - sums up his radio work. The producer of a weekly
science programme is convinced that radio offers scope for a daily
programme of this kind. 'But science is initially rather off-putting.
The station bosses often find it complex, boring, and incomprehensible
– and so do the public. That is why it must be presented in
clear terms, without hurrying to place it in context. It must be
presented, in a sense, by taking things one step at a time.'
Freed from the screen
Radio's obvious limitation can be its main asset: by not having
pictures you are freed from their control. It is not possible for
radio to grab the attention with the dramatic or spectacular ('radio
does not aim to turn the world on its head whereas television is
forced to dramatise the world'), but what could seem to be a shortcoming
is in fact the guarantee of freedom. It is also impossible for radio
to focus on entertainment to the extent that television can. 'I
am sometimes perplexed by the playful presentation of science. If
you really want to improve public understanding of science, I doubt
that it is possible to remain at the entertainment stage without
ultimately trivialising it.'
Working alone or in small teams, radio or press
journalists have their own advantages over television, such as in
the quality of the relationship between the interviewer and interviewee.
'Relations can become deeper and more intimate. There is time to
discuss, prepare the programme together, and the microphone is also
less obtrusive than a camera and spotlights.' This does not mean
it is easy to work with the researchers' words alone. Cutting and
editing are essential. 'Scientists are generally used to speaking,
but they tend to deliver a formal lesson. It sometimes takes a lot
of work to achieve a certain fluency.'
Chance and the vacuum
Every week for two years, from 1998-2000, Jacques Olivier fronted
Semences de curieux, presenting about 100 programmes in
all. This magazine programme came about almost by chance. 'A radio
slot became free and we realised that we didn't have any science
programmes at all. It was this vacuum which brought the response
and not the desire to have a science slot in the schedules.' Significant
Speaking of vacuums… Jacques Olivier remembers
a series on Planck's Constant and the vacuum. Although not at first
sight particularly media-friendly subjects, they nevertheless won
an audience. 'There is no miracle recipe, that is the basic rule
of journalism. To make a subject interesting and ensure it gets
an audience, you have to prepare it thoroughly, obtain documents,
read a great deal, know what you aim to do and ask the right questions.
That said, on more than one occasion I have listened to scientists
without understanding a word they were saying when I thought I had
a good grasp of the subject. But that is all part of the game.'
Since Semences de curieux Jacques Olivier
has presented the weekly history programme Memo and now dreams of
making a new, more specific programme on the history of science.
'Everybody knows Pythagoras' theorem, but Pythagoras also represents
a very special view of the world which is not necessarily known.
History enables us to put science into perspective, to see where
we have come from, where we are and – why not? – where
we are going.'
During the week the recorder
registers dozens of questions. On Sundays the researchers
reply. The questions are asked by children, some of
them as young as three or four, often alone and sometimes
in class. Very sensible questions, seemingly simple
but involving complex concepts. Why are clouds grey
or white? How does the wind obtain its strength? Why
do I want to be like others? What are eyes made of?
How old is the moon? Did people brush their teeth at
the time of Louis XIV?
Most of the children who ask the questions are aged
between six and 14. Their questions have to be listened
to, sorted, grouped and then half a dozen selected.
'When their question is not asked, some call back and
complain,' says Noëlle Breham, producer of the
programme Les p'tits bateaux.
At 7.30pm on Sunday evenings, scientists and specialists
give their answers in simple terms. A paediatrician
may describe how milk is produced in the mother's breast,
a vet might explain why cats always land on their feet,
or a mathematician says why minutes are divided into
60 seconds and not 100.
'As we want the answers
to be precise, the guests must be recognised specialists.
We simply ask them not to exceed four minutes and not
to use complicated words, without being simplistic,'
explains Noëlle Breham. 'But as they know they
are addressing very young people, they naturally refrain
from using jargon.'
Who are their listeners? Children, of course. But parents
too. This kind of programme teaches adults a great deal,
enabling them to understand things they would have never
dared ask about.
summer of science
Every morning at 11am throughout the summer, Denis Cheissoux
asks questions about the seabed, termites, the sun,
Leonardo de Vinci and thunder. The programme comprises
30 minutes of dialogue and two or three songs for a
little light relief. The key task is to find the right
interviewee. 'Our job is to find the right person for
radio – whether it is a Nobel prizewinner or somebody
much less well known. There are some people who know
everything and say nothing which, of course, is no good.'
For a programme aimed at the general public and seeking
to be 'light and instructive', the most important requirement
of a radio scientist is that he should be easily understood.
'Do not try and say everything, that is the rule. Popularisation
can be frustrating, radio too.' Denis Cheissoux (with
France Inter for the past 30 years and presenter of
the famous L'as-tu lu mon p'tit loup devoted
to children's books) is passionately interested in the
environment (as illustrated by his long-running Chassez
le naturel) and chooses his subjects according
to his mood, completely subjectively. 'An idea can come
to me when I am riding my bicycle. I then want people
to explain it all to me, to make up for what I didn't
learn at school.'
Next comes the audio
casting. 'We select by telephone. The telephone is like
the radio, and we know immediately if the voice is going
to work or not – we don't need to meet the person
first.' This morning it is Sylvie Vauclair. An astrophysicist
at the Midi-Pyrénées Observatory and professor
at the Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, she is
talking about the sun. How big is it? How did it originate?
When will it die? What is an eclipse? 'The reason we
can exist is because there were stars before the sun.'
Sylvie Vauclair also talks of solar storms and the sounds
this burning star emits ('it acts like a huge musical
instrument, it is a resonance chamber, the role of the
bow is played by the movements, the explosions, everything
which rotates around the sun…'). Denis Cheissoux
makes no apology for hopping from subject to subject.
One moment it's the Milky Way and the next the moon,
before suddenly coming back down to earth and the subject
of solar power. The pace is fast and it really does
make you want to know more.