After supper last night I parked in front of the tubule and switched on the Discovery Channel. There was an intriguing program on the Cueva de los Cristales (Cave of Crystals) in Mexico. The Naica mine has become famous for its gigantic selenite crystals (calcium sulfate). National Geographic filmed a program on these wondrous crystals and it has been broadcast on the Discovery Channel.

What has raised my ire on this is not the production value. As usual, the cimematography was superb. What is disappointing is the story they chose to tell.

What I have noticed in the public science programming world is a particular weakness that quietly infects writers, directors, and producers. The weakness has to do with the fear of boring their audience. Rather than risk a pandemic of somnolence, writers kick up the script a notch with undercurrents of intrigue and a suggestion of danger for the intrepid parties crawling in the muck or harassing gators.

That’s fine. It never hurts to plan for short attention spans in the audience. But what suffers is a sense of proportion. When the focus shifts from the subject of the expedition to the members of the expedition, the program crosses the line into the tawdry world of show business.

Yes, it is quite hot in the cave. Yes, heatstroke is an issue to be wary of. But, what about the crystals?? What are they made of? Where is the water from which they were precipitated from? How does crystallization work?

And, where is the chemist on the team? National Geographic brought together a geologist, a planetary astronomer, a nuclear physicist, a biologist, and a few others who were not identified. This is a common omission on the part of people outside of the chemical sciences. Nobody knows what the hell we do!

For the showbiz effect, they brought in a planetary astronomer, Dr. Chris McKay, to examine the cave for possible implications on Martian exploration and the Evolution of Life. To media people, science equals- 1) Space Science, 2) Medicine, 3) Computer Science, and 4) oh, did I say Space Science?

It turns out I used to know Chris McKay. He was a TA in an astronomy course I took at the University of Colorado ca 1978. He was a geat guy and, unlike other misfits misanthropes bed wetters grad students in the astro/geophysics program, an attentive and caring instructor. He was (and is) a true believer in space exploration. We spent a long and chilly evening together in the Sommers Bosch Observtory at CU manually guiding the 24 inch telescope on a guide star for some lengthy time exposures of a string of galaxies. We used 3×5 Tri-X plates hypered in H2.

This showbiz reflex is a chronic condition and I am sorry to see National Geographic succumb to it.

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