Thursday 20 September 2018

Science vanishes over the Horizon in a haze of booze

Dr Chris van Tulleken & Dr Xand van Tulleken with 21 units of alcohol in front of them
Dr Chris van Tulleken & Dr Xand van Tulleken with 21 units of alcohol in front of them

THE very first episode of BBC2’s science series Horizon in 1964 focused on the work of Richard Buckminster Fuller, the American architect, systems theorist, author, designer and inventor (thanks for the help, Wikipedia).

The programme also included the series’ mission statement: “The aim of Horizon is to provide a platform from which some of the world’s greatest scientists and philosophers can communicate their curiosity, observations and reflections, and infuse into our common knowledge their changing views of the universe.”

A noble crusade indeed. The first episode of the current series, on the other hand, featured journalist and TV presenter Michael Mosley stuffing his face with sausages, burgers and bacon every day to see what such a meat-heavy diet would do to his health.

This was by no means the worst of it. Two years ago, Horizon spent two full episodes tracking the movements around a Surrey village of 50 cats that had been fitted with GPS collars. The startling conclusion was that cats like to prowl around while the humans are asleep, on the lookout for the occasional rodent snack and perhaps a little romantic liaison under the stars. Because THAT’S WHAT CATS DO!

One gets the impression that the fine sentiment expressed by the original Horizon back in 1964 has slowly shrunk to a tiny dot on the current Horizon. It vanished completely with last night’s instalment, which saw doctors and genetically identical twins Xand and Christ van Tulleken investigating whether binge drinking is really as bad for you as it’s supposed to be.

In this instance, “investigating” basically meant whacking back the booze. British medical experts advise that men should drink no more than 21 units of alcohol a week; that’s 10.5 pints of beer, or two bottles of wine, or three-quarters  of a bottle of whiskey.

Chris took it slow and sensibly, having three units a day every day of the week for a month. Xand guzzled the whole lot every Saturday and then stayed on the wagon for the rest of the week — which gave his brother the opportunity to film him slurring and mixing up his words, singing cheesy songs on the way home in the taxi, and then having an unexpected bout of crying on the landing, before falling into bed with his trousers on and waking up the following morning with a pounding hangover.

So what information, other than the fact that getting hammered makes you act like an eejit and leaves you feeling sh*t the next morning, did we gain from this that we couldn’t have pieced together from personal experience of going on the rip?

Not a lot of any real scientific value, to be honest. The twins discovered at the end of the month that their liver function had been affected to pretty much the same degree, despite their different drinking habits. This, the on-hand experts declared, might have something to do with their unique genetic bond... then again, it might not.

Hard to say, really, because as Xand himself pointed out at the start (and as the experts agreed at the end): “This doesn’t qualify as a scientific study.”

So what, you might reasonably ask, is it doing taking up an episode of a series — and a formerly great series — that’s supposed to be about science?

In next week’s Horizon, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer investigate whether repeatedly bashing one another over the head with heavy frying pans increases or decreases their respective IQs.

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