'Prepare to start questioning your grasp of reality," said the television announcer before a Horizon special called What Is Reality? in which a camera crew wandered around the research labs and particle accelerators of the USA asking that very question. The answer wasn't forthcoming. Reality is hard to define because, scientifically speaking, what we know about existence and how we actually perceive existence are very different things. "I feel like I'm standing still, but I'm actually zooming around the sun at great speed," explained one scientist. "I feel solid, but really I'm mostly empty space. And I'm watching a football game but maybe the flow of time is an illusion?"
In the old days, this sort of talk was resolved by a clip round the ear, some vitamin C and a spell in the army. Nowadays, scientists respond by blowing things up. You see, the progress of physics has, for a century or so, involved discovering what are assumed to be the basic building blocks of reality (first atoms then protons then quarks). Then some smartarse come along, hypothesises that there's even more basic stuff ('stuff' being a scientific term), and blows up the last discovered bit of stuff to prove it.
From a philistine perspective, it's a pretty futile activity, and only has a point if we eventually find a particle with the indentation of a heavenly chisel, a patent number, or an inscription with the words "Copyright Yahweh, 4004 BC". However, the wonderfully baffling truth, as the Horizon team explained, is that each time we discover new and smaller stuff it acts in ways previously thought impossible and throws light and shadow on how the universe actually works. So on Horizon they discussed subatomic particles, 'The Particle Zoo', the discovery of the elusive sixth quark, and the Higgs-Boson particle that's being sought in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. And I'm understanding it all (sort of).
Then they rolled out the Double-Slit Experiment, a quantum-physics set-piece in which a single photon of light is fired randomly through a plane with two slits. The experiment has two perplexing conclusions. The single photon of light somehow goes through both slits thus bi-locating. Furthermore, it's shy. It will only do this if it doesn't think it's being observed. Bluh?
In every episode of Horizon, there's a moment where I just zone out and start admiring the sensible jumpers and sports coats. This is, I stress, not the fault of the programme makers. It's just that watching Horizon is when I start to understand the perplexed expression on my cat's face when she's watching all television. As the moving image is generally beyond the capabilities of my cat, so the science of Horizon is beyond the capabilities of this television reviewer.
And they really go out of their way to simplify things. Most of the explanations come from softly-spoken, casually-dressed physicists, simultaneously engaged in illustrative activities such as (last week) arranging fruit, mowing the lawn, driving around San Francisco, or sitting in a lighthouse doing equations. I can't remember which activity was used to illustrate which high-concept theory, but once you lose the thread of the argument you forget the point of the illustrative film. Indeed, at times, as I watched these affable gents going about their business, I could imagine the words: "Would you like to speak to like-minded particle physicists in your area?" flashing across the screen followed by an 1800 number.
Yet, I still return to Horizon in an attempt to better myself (in the same way I force my cat to watch television in the hope she'll learn to talk) and I pray for a day when I get up from my seat afterwards with a feeling of true comprehension, and not just a bunch of badly-understood notions that can, best-case scenario, be used to start a crazed religious cult: there are parallel worlds, the universe is a type of hologram, reality is maths.
"Prepare to start questioning your grasp of reality," is what the RTÉ announcer should have said before Fade Street. This "scripted reality programme" certainly makes me question the nature of the universe. However, it has to be said, the subatomic particles in this particular Particle Zoo are not shy about ongoing observation. In fact, when Louise and Vogue opened the door to Dani's room to wake her in the opening moments of this episode, nobody seemed troubled that the shot was filmed from inside the room ("The camera crew like to watch me sleep? Shut up, that's awesome!").
And nobody ever mentions that they're on a television show, a fact one would expect needed to be explained to, at the very least, the girls' employers and co-workers. Yet Michael O'Doherty (MOD), owner of Stellar magazine where Louise "works", takes to the camera with the ease of a man who came out of the womb with a camera crew in tow ("Oh Christ! That's not a placenta... It's a boom microphone!" as the midwife screamed) and Louise's work-frenemy Melina chews the scenery with all the skill of a young Dev from Coronation Street.
As you've gathered, Fade Street has a few concepts that viewers need to get their heads around. The protagonists have "jobs" and "friends" and they go on "dates", ideas which can cause a certain amount of strain to both the brain and the finger responsible for the quotation mark symbol on the laptop. For example, Dani and Louise are "friends" in that they live together and socialise together, but they clearly dislike one other (Dani's anti-social club-crashing ways cause Louise to go so thin-lipped she might, for the series finale, turn herself inside-out), while hunky love-pest Diarmuid gets a 'job' with Stellar magazine, despite displaying no discernible skills apart from having a perfectly rectangular forehead and balls like a space-hopper.
Last week, sad-eyed Cici decided to move in to Louise and Dani's flat, a couple of the girls went on dates with young chaps who were smug and dismissive in different ways, and Louise glared at Dani, who upset MOD by getting rowdy at a Stellar do in Krystle (his Valhalla). Meanwhile, likeable DJ-turned-actor 'Vogue' continues to be the only person who actually seems real (not "real"), a fact that makes me believe she was actually christened Vogue without italics, possibly even at a bona-fide church service alongside her siblings, Tatler, The Economist and Ireland's Own. All in all, Fade Street rips through the fabric of reality like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and I can't stop watching it.
"Prepare to start questioning your grasp of reality," was also something that could have been said before Driving Me Crazy, a programme in which a couple of minor celebrities drive across Ireland. That's it. That's the concept. Two wing-mounted cameras capture the awkward/pointless/polite/structure-less conversations to create a general sense of cognitive dissonance. A day later I'd already misfiled it as a bizarre personal memory. "Did I once carpool with Linda Martin and Geraldine from The Apprentice?" I asked. "That was a television programme," said the cat and I gaped in horror. Yes, TV3 had finally succeeded in 'driving me crazy' and now I sit, a white-haired warning not to get into a car with Linda Martin and Geraldine from The Apprentice, or indeed Nell McCafferty and Lisa Murphy, or Crystal Swing. Yes, physicists of Horizon, I have seen the face of Reality and it's a B-list celebrity nattering in a hatchback... forever.
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