Rough Science Rocks!
a rave by
Al Wong
October 18, 2005

Have you heard of that BBC show called Rough Science (RS)? I need to rave about it! It's a great show! I started watching RS since last year. It's one of the few shows I actually found myself looking forward to watching.

The basic premise of the show is quite interesting. Five scientists from various backgrounds are left on an island with nothing but basic handtools and common materials (like wood, iron, copper, etc.) and whatever they find could on the island. Then the scientists are given 2-3 tasks to do like find the current latitude/longitude, make an accurate map of of the island, make paper and ink, build a radio, build an electric generator, purify water, make an underwater light, create sunblock, find and refine gold, etc. all without modern equipment! And they have three days to do these tasks. It's math and science at it's most basic and practical level. The show is very interesting. The solutions the scientists come up with are quite clever.

The use of hand tools, common materials and what you find around you isn't always strictly adhered to. There's a magic trunk containing random things the scientists "may or may not" find useful. Things like handheld electric drills, alarm clocks, old radios, etc. A little deus ex machina. I suspect some things in the magic trunk are pre-ordered by the scientists. Otherwise the given task couldn't be done. There are a few red herrings though. (What's the Jello for?)

I think RS started off conceptually as a variation of the Survivor TV show but with very important twists. Both shows are "reality" based. Both shows have characters working under relatively primitive conditions. But the RS show has nothing to do with survival. The show is about doing basic science and math under these conditions. And it's amazing what you can do given expert knowledge.

What's Right With The Show

  1. An opportunity to see the basic science behind the things we take for granted. Seeing how some things work in their basic form. See really practical applications of the math and science you learned in school. Seeing knowledge you learned in school and then forgot because you had nothing practical to associate with them. Seeing basic knowledge they should have taught you in school but didn't.

  2. View the scientific process firsthand. It isn't always pretty. It doesn't always work. The scientists experiment to see if something will work. If not, they will try another solution. Having expert knowledge in their field helps but it may not always be enough. A big helping of lateral thinking is always involved.

  3. Seeing solutions derived from more than one field of science. It was interesting to see how the scientists worked together in cooperation to find a solution to a given problem. One scientist may have a working or partial solution. Then another scientist with a different background may make that solution work better. Then a third scientist in another background may contribute something to make that second solution work even better!

  4. Just watching people who pretty much know what they are doing. This is worth mentioning. There's too much incompetency in the world.

  5. Is it me or is Kate Humble hot? :)

What's Wrong With the Show

  1. There's really only one problem with the show. They seem torn between appealing to a mass audience (and therefore dumbing down the science and math or leaving it out altogether) and explaining how the basic science works (which is really the whole premise of the show). Sometimes they explain how they solved the problem but sometimes they don't always fully explain what they did or they just gloss over it. But you usually get enough information to research it on-line and try to figure it out.

    I would prefer they explain exactly what they did, at least more fully. Otherwise, what's the point? Knowing something can be done and understanding how something can be done are two separate things. Almost everyone knows the former. Not many people know the latter. The point of the RS show is understanding how.

    For example, in the first season for finding latitude, it was not explained why the angle between the horizon and the North star (Pole star) is the same as the latitude. This fact was just pulled out of the air and was not given a satisfactory explanation. This is strange considering this method is one of the basis for sea navigation, cartography, etc. In trying to find the answer to this, I discovered many math teachers and graduate math students did not know how to solve this. I eventually solved it myself!

    Also, how does one find the latitude in the Southern hemisphere where you can't see the North star?

    Another example, also from the first season. In mapping out the island, they used the mathematical properties of triangles. It was stated if you know the length of one side and the two adjacent angles, it was possible to calculate the distances of the other two sides. However, this was not explained again. This would have been a perfect opportunity to give a practical application of trigonometry which is now taught in school so abstractly and dryly.

    I could go on but you get the idea.

  2. Lame PBS stations. This is not about RS per se but still a problem if you want to see the show. RS is only broadcast from PBS. The problem is they don't run all the RS shows on my local PBS stations. There are 3 PBS stations local to me. They never run all of the episodes in the series and tend to skip around. And lately, the stations are not running RS shows at all. And I get crappy reception from two of those stations to boot.

The DVDs

I recently ordered the DVDs from the UK and I just got them. I ordered all the DVDs from all 5 seasons (I didn't even know there were 5 seasons of RS until I looked into ordering them! I understand there's going to be a 6th season too(!) but it hasn't been filmed yet.) and the shows are GREAT! I'm finally seeing the RS episodes I missed.

The DVDs are on the expensive side. I had to order them from the UK because no one in the US stocked all 5 seasons. One US store had only seasons 1 and 2 for $150. RS is not the type of show that is mass produced like blockbuster movies. The show was made by the BBC and I guess they didn't realize how popular the show would be. Between the exchange rate and shipping, I think the DVDs will end up costing me around $300. But if you're into understanding how things work and the basic science behind them, they're great. It's worth it for me.

The quality of the DVDs is fair. It looks like they just dumped the video tape on DVDs. No episode chapters. A really bad, bare bones menu (What? You couldn't put more color in the selected buttons?). No extras. It would have been nice to have some extras on the DVDs. Background information on the solutions of the tasks solved would have been extremely satisfying. A big opportunity was missed here.

Season 1 DVD came out of it's holder during shipping to the US and arrived scratched up. I made a copy of it and the copy plays fine.

Season 4 DVDs were particularly bad. The main menu didn't work quite right (and there were only three choices in the menu!) and the selection buttons had the very NON-descriptive titles like Program 1, Program 2, Program 3...

They changed the original flute theme song in seasons 1 and 2 to guitar music later. I liked the original theme song. It's more descriptive of RS; primitive, earthy and it works together!

The DVDs are supposed to play in all world regions but they didn't play correctly all the time:

  • On my first generation DVD player, the shows displayed as black and white and part of the picture on the bottom was cut off. Some episodes would freeze the player. I should mention this DVD player plays all my region 1 DVDs perfectly.
  • On my computer's DVD player, the main menu failed to load. Playing the individual episode files worked fine though.
  • On my portable fourth generation DVD player, the DVDs played fine. All in color, no picture cut off and the main menu loaded (still looks sucky though).
So it depends on what type of DVD player you have.

December 16, 2007 Update - I discovered my Rough Science DVDs are going bad. One DVD from Season 3 and both DVDs from Season 5 are unplayable! And these are the ones I have found so far! It seems the manufacturing process of these DVDs are substandard.

If it was not for "illegal" DVD copy software, I would not have been able to retrieve my lost DVDs!


Rough Science is a wonderful, educational and fun show teaching basic science and math concepts. You can actually see the practical applications of these concepts and why they are useful to know. The show seems to be torn between appealing to a mass audience (and dumbing down the science or leaving it out) and explaining how the basic science works (which is really the whole premise of the show). I think they should fully explain the science behind their solutions and not underestimate their audience. Overall, the show is quite good, informative and entertaining.

My Writings

Last updated : December 16, 2007
Copyright 2005 Al Wong, Los Angeles, California, USA