The next big thing: the video scientist

Those of you who read this column regularly will know that, in the recent past, I have often been reluctant to offer words of praise for science videos, even when such encomiums may have been justified.

Jan 1st, 2007
Th 0701lfw Jbairstow

Tell me, why do academics have to appear on video in ratty sweaters? Why do otherwise articulate authors have to mumble their monotonous way through a boring prepared text?

Those of you who read this column regularly will know that, in the recent past, I have often been reluctant to offer words of praise for science videos, even when such encomiums may have been justified. In fact, I may have been a tad too quick to be downright scathing or have tended to too readily damn with faint praise.

So, now here comes an organization that could well prove me wrong. It’s not the first time I have been proven wrong, of course. And it will probably not be the last time, either.

The object of my recent video affection comes to us via a splendidly polished website for the U.K.-based Vega Science Trust (www.vega.org.uk). Click on that URL right now before you continue to read this column. This slick nonprofit group has been collecting and drawing up high-quality science-related video programs for showing on television, notably on Britain’s government-sponsored BBC channels. As a result, the Vega Science Trust has amassed a considerable number of fascinating videos, several of which held me enthralled for a long day’s night, the very day I had planned to use for writing this column.

For me, the creme de la creme was a series of very entertaining lectures given in 1979 by Richard Feynman on the theory of photons, at the University of Auckland (New Zealand). Although the video has some technical problems caused by the relatively primitive nature of video-recorders at that time, the content is absolutely fascinating. If you have never seen the late Professor Feynman in full iconoclastic flow, then I heartily recommend that you watch this series of lectures-a bravura performance! Even a nonscientist will readily understand the larger part of these videos.

But there’s much more to visit on this Web site. I also enjoyed Flight in Birds and Aeroplanes by John Maynard Smith, a professor of biology at the University of Sussex; Science and Fine Art by David Bomford, a senior restorer at Britain’s National Gallery; and The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman, an American best-selling book author, freelance science writer, and magazine editor.

Although I found the content of these vintage videos quite fascinating, most of them could have benefited from the serious improvement in production values that a competent television director, working with a skilled video editor, could bring to the party. Tell me, why do academics have to appear on video in ratty sweaters? Why do otherwise articulate authors have to mumble their monotonous way through a boring prepared text? And, why not hire a competent graphic designer to produce professional-looking charts, graphs, and tables?

I could go on (and on), but you will quickly get the idea after looking at a few of these videos. Frankly, it is not necessary to hire a team of expensive video professionals to get significantly better videos. Great videos can be made with what is often called “prosumer” equipment that is a cut above amateur video gear but not as expensive or as complex as top-level pro gear.

I recommend that you take some young and enthusiastic person in your company or department and have that individual trained in the use of Avid Technology’s Media Composer suite of video-editing and post-production programs (www.avid.com/products/media-composer). You’ll be amazed at the difference a few weeks of training and skill development can make.

And if you want to do live webcasts, I suggest you look into the TriCaster-a TV studio in a box for under $5000 by NewTek (www.newtek.com/tricaster)-that will produce very professional-looking output for webcasts, video recording, or cable-TV broadcasting. A few hours of hands-on training is all that the TriCaster requires..

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Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor
In-My-View@comcast.net

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