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Up above the world

07 October 2016


A CALIFORNIAN road-trip is a media cliché: a voyage of self-discovery facilitated by sex, drugs, and rock-’n’-roll. A refreshingly different take on the trope was presented by BBC4’s Britain’s Star Men: Heroes of astronomy (Thursday of last week). Four leading astronomers celebrated the 50th anniversary of their time as research students in observatories and universities in the United States; time in which they had all made vital contributions to new understandings of our universe.

This programme assumed the character of overlapping meditations: on the wonder of science and the delight of discovery; on the centrality of human friendship; and, above all, on mortality and death. The astronomers shared their celebration of how their science is developing, and of what is being newly discovered and understood.

Half a century ago, they were a self-conscious quartet, aware that they were taking the US by storm, evidenced by numerous snaps of them holding up a large Union flag (brought for the return trip) in front of this or that laboratory or canyon.

The miracle of human comprehensibility, the fact that our brains and imaginations can understand and model the unfathomable reaches of the universe (its dynamic and expanding, as opposed to static, nature was one of the key facts that their work revealed) gives them a central humility.

For some, their study left no place for God; others professed their faith; one confessed that, whatever objective truth Christian doctrine might express, the experience of weekly worship was a vital component for a complete life.

Britain’s Lost Masterpieces is a new series (BBC4, Wednesdays) that explores what might lie in our remarkable and unsung regional and local museums and galleries: in particular, employing the resources of experts and conservation far beyond the contracting budgets of the institutions to bring to light works of greater significance than has hitherto been recognised.

It started triumphantly. A dirty panel-painting in Swansea, long held to be a later copy of a Jordaens, was demonstrated to be original. This might be thought minor and specialist stuff, but, in fact, it has a larger and more important purpose. It restores pride and rehearses largely forgotten local history, the once-global importance of communities that have had all confidence knocked out of them, and demonstrates that they, too, play a part in the story of human creativity and discovery.

The correct genre classification for Damned (Channel 4, Tuesdays) is problematic. It is obviously a comedy, with a starry cast led by Jo Brand and Alan Davies, but it depicts the working of a local-authority children’s services department; so the actual scenarios are the stuff of tabloid headlines: child neglect, and chronic domestic failure.

It has started gently in familiar territory: incompetent colleagues; the social workers’ home life only degrees more settled than their clients’; non-functioning IT; and HR regulations that are given such precedence that actual work is virtually impossible.

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