Codes, colours and the perils of popular science

Be careful when watching science programmes on TV! Rhetoric threatens to overrun results at every turn.

I just caught up with Marcus du Sautoy’s The Code, which in its last programme looked at how mathematics can describe seemingly chaotic systems. Take the flocking of starlings, he said. Computers can simulate these beautiful but seemingly random patterns by having dots/birds follow very simple rules, like ‘avoid incoming predators’. That just about solves the mystery then. Except that none of the shots we saw of the handsome professor gazing at flocking starlings showed any sign of predators nearby at all. Surely the more interesting question to ask would be why the mathematics fails to describe these beautiful but seemingly random patterns, and what else might be at play?

Or there was the first in the new Horizon series, premised on the discovery that we all see colours differently. Cue Beau Lotto stating boldly that colour is one of nature’s great delusions: they don’t exist at all, as science can now reveal. Only, doesn’t every art historian worth their salt already know that we see colours differently: alongside the artists, they devote years to understanding the subtleties. The surprise about the subjective nature of colour only comes to the scientist who had assumed that Newton’s mechanical theory of light is the first and last word on the matter. A more interesting question might be whether there is something in Goethe’s alternative? It was trashed by the Newtonians for paying direct attention to colour’s effects on people. Mightn’t the real story be science struggling to catch up?