Screen Savors: Shacking up for science

A welcome addition to the trend of teaching layman science with a smile.

With our water pipes on the blink, we were glad that the answer to our question of whether we could live for an extended period underwater was neatly supplied Thursday night by the Science Shack, a BBC import (Monday, 19:00) produced by the Open University for Channel 8. Like its cheekier predecessor, Braniacs, the program sets out to examine basic scientific questions, this time whether or not host Adam Hart-Davis (Local Heroes) could survive a lengthy stay inside an "aqua-shack," the underwater version of his Science Shack where he and his crew of professionals tackle the challenges of science. The half-hour program features Hart-Davis - who once wrote a book on the history of the toilet called Thunder, Flush and Thomas Crapper - and his crew sorting out such issues as how tall one could possibly grow to be or could you fly like a bird. The answers are provided using a combination of pure science and good humor that make the program entertaining for both parents and kids alike. This movement towards more programming aimed at teaching the layman science with a smile - which brings back fond memories of Mr. Wizard, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and other such US programs - is a welcome trend, and Channel 8 deserves credit for finding these entertaining programs. While perhaps not as off the wall as Braniacs, Science Shack is still very much popular science for the masses. So even while Adam was explaining the scientific side of buoyancy and just what would be needed to allow him to survive at the bottom of a huge tank of water in Yorkshire, there was a little cartoon octopus on the side blinking at the audience. Like in Braniacs, the host's team of assistants wears matching T-shirts, but here they seem much more devoted to the purpose than to blowing things up for fun, while still retaining some of the other show's dry wit. One of Adam's assistants assured him that keeping the host alive while underwater was "a priority." Sure enough, the team constructed a diving-bell like apparatus made out of two construction dump bins that allowed Adam to go on his Jules Verne-style expedition. Hart-Davis, who at a certain point in his life decided to give up driving a car and began riding a bike instead to get fit, appears up to any challenge. Ahead of going underwater, the brave host got a briefing from a UK submarine officer ahead of time who advised him to "keep yourself amused." With Tibor ("it means hero in Czech, so I'm in good hands," mused Adam) the safety monitor aboard with him, Adam appeared to be having a good time living underwater. His team of experts - who had bet him 15 quid that the Aquashack would work - had even provided him with a decorative "Home Sweet Home" picture on the wall. Science Shack also features a Web site where its experiments can be checked out, and email access to Adam and his team. With reports that Israeli children are spending way too much time at the nation's shopping malls this summer instead of in front of the TV where they belong, Channel 8's Science Shack and other programs are a much better alternative.