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The International Writers Magazine:

Horizon – How long is a piece of string?
BBC 2 and HD, 10:30pm Tuesday 17th November 2009.
Category: Documentary, Factual, Science & Nature.
Duration: 60 minutes
By Laurie O’Neil

‘Little did I know that after a week a centimetre could have a new meaning?’ The words of comedian and actor Alan Davies who is attempting to answer the proverbial question: How long is a piece of string? 

He starts his quest in a hardware shop where he explains that science wasn’t his strong point at school, and how he purposefully failed his exams in order to drop physics. We’ve heard that excuse before Alan.  Davies is a nice chap sporting a Clarkson meets Keegan hairdo and a relaxed, almost smug, manner.  He goes to meet smiley boffins all dressed in collared shirts with a single button undone and a lambs-wool V necked jumper, a la M&S.  They all seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves and are unpretentious, something of a rarity nowadays.

Alan and leading mathematician Marcus du Sautoy go to Cornwall and measure the coastline from a map using a piece of string, a rule and a wheeled gauge.  They then draw triangles on a sandy beach and our mathematician thinks that they look like snowflakes.  I am losing interest, but the Cornish beach looks wonderful.  The Atlantic has retreated to reveal sand, lots of sand.  Marcus enthusiastically reveals that Alan's short length of string may in fact be infinitely long.
‘You’ve been carrying around infinity in your pocket for all these days, Alan.’

Alan now feels the need to measure in the smallest particle possible: atoms.  I must confess to losing interest with this continuing quest and despite all the characters being extremely nice they are becoming somewhat dreary.  My eyelids are getting as heavy as Le Creuset pan lids and soporific waves of BBC tedium are washing over me…  Then Becky Parker from the Simon Rampton School for boys explodes onto my flat-screen TV.  Alan describes Becky as one of the best physics teachers in the country.  Should I be impressed?

This shiny-suited, unmade-up, pink nosed, smiling and slightly nutty woman keeps licking her lips.  This has brought the programme back to life; she’s going to eat Alan.  They look similar and I feel that there’s something going on between them.  It also appears that they’re both wearing wigs?  Then he destroys my illusion by saying, ‘this is exactly what I was afraid of: being locked in a dark room with a physics teacher.’  
Alan draws a circle with a dot in the middle.
‘Absolutely brilliant!’ Becky says with lip-licking eagerness.  This is taking motivation too far Becky. I’m sure you’re not  patronising Alan, but it does come across as extremely condescending.  She continues, ‘all the beings on earth could have their matter condensed into a single sugar cube.’  She flashes her lovely equine teeth and repeatedly says ‘Quantum mould, Quantum mould, Quantum mould.’  It’s distracting; she’s so weird; I can’t concentrate.

Alan and Becky go to UCL to find a lab in order to pass a laser light through two slits in a piece of cardboard, where it transforms into stripes.  Not only do objects appear in many places at once, but reality itself seems to be an illusion.

I think Becky’s mad!  For me there has been little purpose and practical use to this documentary and I was filled with disappointment.  It’s like drinking a flat coca cola.
I’ve watched many ‘Horizon’ productions and have always had a high regard of their programming, but I am afraid that this one did not live up to expectation.  I think that this was probably due to the genre being that of Physics which, like Alan, I was hopeless at when at school.  
© Laurie O'Neil Dec 2009
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