Oh dear.

On Twitter this morning, various people have alerted us to a rather shocking  TV chemistry blunder. James May, of Top Gear fame, has a series on the BBC called Things you need to know, and last night’s show was about chemistry.

Within the first two minutes of the programme, it became obvious that the people doing the graphics had basically zero chemical knowledge (which is not a problem in itself), and hadn’t even bothered to have one of the chemists they obviously interviewed as part of the show to cast an eye over them (which turns out to be a much bigger problem). As May starts to try and explain what a chemical reaction is, using baking soda and vinegar as an example, this graphic pops up on the screen.

Now that one’s not too bad apart from a missing carbon in the formula for vinegar, those carbons are so tricksy to keep track of! OK, the numbers should be subscript and we have a mixture of some sub- and some not. That’s a fairly harmless error. But there’s also no arrow to suggest this is a reaction and delineate which are the reactants and which the products.

And it gets worse on the next graphic – when the formula of sodium bicarbonate is presented with the three as a superscript rather than a subscript. This is starting to get more dangerous as an error, as the meaning is much more easily confused, and it’s a bigger step away from convention. This isn’t a one-off either – later in the show, when the formula of sodium chlorate (NaClO3) is shown, it also has a superscript three.

But the daddy of the bloopers is still to come. When May describes the structure of acetic acid, things go horribly wrong – the infamous five-valent Texas carbon rears its head.

This is disappointing from the BBC, which is usually very good at science programmes. And to be fair, the overall message of the rest of the programme is OK – chemicals are all around us and aren’t all bad for us, we need them to survive. It’s just a shame that the researchers seem to have dropped the ball a little on this one. Chemistry, particularly structures and formulae, is a language in itself. Using it badly doesn’t help anyone, and it would have taken anyone with even a tiny chemical knowledge to spot these mistakes.

Phillip Broadwith


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What's wrong with these pictures, 9.6 out of 10 based on 19 ratings
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