'Survivor' for Scientists

Hello? Physicist Jonathan Hare tries to make a radio from scrap found on the island as Rough Science host Kate Humble watches.

If you were dropped on a remote Mediterranean island, could you pinpoint your location using a saucepan? Make film with seaweed? Those were some of the challenges facing the scientists who starred in Rough Science, a TV series created by the United Kingdom's Open University (OU). The show has been such a success that OU researchers are now designing a course to go with it.

In the series, five scientists--a chemist, a physicist, a molecular biologist, an ethnobotanist, and a marine biologist--were dumped on Capraia, an island off northern Italy. Using only a few basic tools including pliers, a saw, and a radio crystal, they were given 3 days to complete a series of tasks with the natural resources at hand.

One of the more memorable challenges was to make soap from scratch, says the chemist, Mike Bullivant of Open University. The scientists tried unsuccessfully to produce sodium hydroxide--required to turn fat into soap--by running a current through seawater, using pieces of pencil graphite as electrodes. They finally managed to make soap with wood ash and oil from wild olives. The exercise was a good illustration of the fact that "science is more about failure than success," Bullivant says. Another failure was an attempt to create a camera with the aid of seaweed and a silver bracelet.

The program has been a phenomenal success in the U.K.--with over 2 million viewers--and now its influence is spreading across the Atlantic, with negotiations under way to air it on PBS. Both OU and its counterpart, U.S. Open University, are also designing short courses in basic science that incorporate examples of "rough science" and will accompany a second season.

The show may sound like another Survivor-style exercise in "reality TV," but they're actually polar opposites, Bullivant says. "Reality TV seems to be about backstabbing. ... Science is about collaboration."

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