When Nigel Latta blows stuff up

Psychologist Nigel Latta has a new show running on TV One: Nigel Latta Blows Stuff Up.

It is great TV, science-related but presented in a very pop-science format, with shades of Mythbusters and the types of science shows you’ll see browsing the Discovery Channel – plenty of explosions and slow motion photography.

Nigel Latta
Nigel Latta

The first episode kicked off on Sunday night with a bang – or a series of them, as Latta explored what it might be like to be struck by lightning.

The bulk of the show saw him visiting the University of Canterbury’s High Voltage Laboratory where a number of pretty cool looking experiments were undertaken involving blowing up potatoes and sausages, a life-size dummy of Nigel and even zapping a small car with him sitting in it.

There was a Faraday suit and a Faraday cage and celebrity chef Michael Van de Elzen being zapped with low-power shocks as he tried to make a tart. All good fun and seemingly over in a flash – its a half hour show, which with adverts goes by very quickly.

It successfully gets across some interesting concepts about basic science.

The Herald called the show “educational broccoli hidden in a deliciously entertaining tart”. Fair summary.

But reviewer Alex Casey went on to comment:

The demonstrations work as they are fronted solely by Nige, rather than a dowdy old “expert”. Like the audience, he is seemingly learning as he goes and relishing the revelations.

Really? Is that the perception of scientists?

Latta is a great talent, no doubt, but I can think of half a dozen scientists who would have been equally great fronting that show and would definitely not have fallen into “dowdy old expert” territory.

Which made me wonder about the celebrity host versus scientist fronting popular science shows. Granted, Latta has the scientific credentials. This interesting Herald profile notes that he obtained a BSc in zoology at the University of Otago then a masters in marine science. At the University of Auckland he did a masters degree in psychology gaining first class honours, then topped it off with a diploma in clinical psychology.

As the Herald piece indicates, a lot of people wonder why the hell we should listen to Nigel Latta when he roams far and wide beyond his main area of expertise – psychology. He’s basically become a TV celebrity as his books and TV shows have explored an increasingly wide range of subjects, that no doubt feed his curious mind.

I don’t have a problem with him going from serial killer psychology to the breeding habits of penguins, to our alcohol consumption . Latta is what they call in the TV world “compelling talent” and his science background gives him an appreciation for evidence and the process of science. He is basically a science-savvy journalist exploring issues in a very relatable way. Fair play to him.

I think by and large, he’s done the TV watching public a service and his wide appeal has allowed shows on topics as diverse as Antarctica and inequality to be produced that probably wouldn’t have got the green light in other types of formats.

However, I don’t think Latta is the only one with a science background who can do this, even if it sometimes seems to be the case.

We’ve got others with a science bent that could front prime time TV shows as effectively. But my worry is that Latta is now so ubiquitous that he is now our go-to front person for popular science of any shade.

Will we see Nigel in his next show talking about earthquakes, or climate change? Maybe. It will rate well and could have cut through with people who wouldn’t otherwise watch a show on earthquake probability and seismic risk.

But it is also time for other budding communicators and science talents to step up. We need a diversity of science communicators who can appeal to broad audiences. My sense is that we have them, but that they need our support to break through and ultimately make the short list when production companies run down their list of “compelling talent” and potential hosts.

Nigel Latta Blows Stuff Up, Sundays, 8pm, TV One

3 Comments

  1. terrymoore

    It is a great pity that the last episode demonstrated that things fall at the same rate in the absence of air resistance without saying why. Isn’t “why” as much (or more) about science as “what”?

    As Nigel said, Galileo was a genius, but that doesn’t mean that ordinary mortals can’t understand Gaileo’s argument. Nigel could have demonstrated Galileo’s thinking by cutting his orange and dropping the parts tied together by a piece of fishing line.

  2. Michael Edmonds

    I am trying to imagine Michelle Dickinson (Nanogirl) being described as a “dowdy old expert” but can’t quite see it. 🙂

    I think this programme is relying on Nigel Latta’s existing high profile with the public to stimulate interest in the programme. This is similar to several science related programmes hosted by Richard Hammond – he is a well known celebrity but has little training in science.
    I’d be curious to know if Nigel came up with the idea of this programme himself as is implied in the programme or whether he was approached by the makers of the programme.
    I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the analogy that the science was “educational broccoli hidden in a deliciously entertaining tart”. It reinforces the idea that science/education is something difficult and not fun, when it can be.

  3. Grant Jacobs

    “We need a diversity of science communicators who can appeal to broad audiences.”

    I agree. Been meaning for far too long to write something on this and related issues.

    I’d also like to see attention broadened to not just a variety of people but also to remember that there is much more than just TV for science communication. Other means have their strengths and merits, and reach different people in different ways that have real impact. Radio. Newspaper, magazine, book. Video. Citizen science efforts. School visits. Animation. And so on.

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