I’ve watched, admired, enjoyed and been greatly educated by the numerous natural history productions with David Attenborough over more decades than I’d like to admit. They’ve taken me to places I’d never dream of visiting, and developed technologies to bring the natural world to our screens in ever increasing detail, from some of the most inhospitable and inaccessible places on Earth.
So, I’ve been enjoying very much the ‘Blue Planet II’ BBC TV series screening on TV1.
Who would have imagined there is a fish that avoids the water by jumping with a whole-body flip accurately three times its body length! The Pacific Leaping Blenny was filmed for the first time in coastal Guam. This episode, titled ‘Coasts’, dealt with creatures that inhabit the intertidal zone, between sea and land.
Explaining how the tides work, a time-lapse showed the Moon moving across the night-time sky as the tide receded along the foreshore. David Attenborough’s narration intoned: “As the Moon circles our planet, the seas rise and fall, typically twice a day, …”.
Hmmm. As an astronomy educator my immediate reaction was, “Oh, come on; you can do better than that’. The narration implies there is just one high tide in a month (because it takes a month for the Moon to circle Earth once). The word ‘typically’ is also problematic, as the interval between the tides is known accurately (12 hours 25 minutes).
Learning about days, nights and tides is an essential part of the ‘Planet Earth and Beyond’ section of the curriculum. Leading children to an understanding of these astronomical cycles consumes a significant portion of our teaching time here at Stardome.
The transition in understanding from what we experience in everyday (and ‘everynight’) life to how these cycles actually arise is not easy. Each day we refer to the Sun rising and the Moon setting, perpetuating misconceptions and incorrect conclusions.
Therefore, it is very disappointing, frustrating and unhelpful when a very highly regarded science series led by an iconic communicator gets it wrong – or at least gets it far from right.
I will still eagerly watch the rest of this series and any future natural history programmes with David Attenborough’s name on them – and I do hope there will be more, despite his advancing age.
However, perhaps this provides a teaching opportunity, where we all need to be reminded to be accurate in our language when describing the wonderful world around, and beyond, us.
David Britten, Astronomy Educator