It’s Friday night. Three million viewers switch onto a new prime time TV show. A preoccupied-looking man arrives in a sports’ car, a woman speeds up on her motorbike, takes off her helmet, and shakes out her long hair. Time is running out, can they succeed against all the odds?

Surprisingly, perhaps, this was the start of a BBC TV science show, Building the Impossible, also recently seen on the Discovery Channel. Presenters Chris Wise, a structural engineer, and Caroline Baillie, a materials scientist, were charged with recreating historic engineering feats using only the know-how and materials of the time. A team of experts and craftsmen were assembled to help. While you might smile at the efforts to style science as exciting and dynamic, it is worth another look. Rather than dumbing-down science for a general audience, the show reveals the very human elements of being a working scientist: researching and proposing an idea, the trial and error of experimentation, and the ‘Eureka’ moment of success.

Baillie believes she was selected to present the show because of her theatrical experience — more often as a director than an active participant. Her current position as Dupont Chair in Engineering Education at Queen’s University, Canada also reflects dual interests in materials science and educating a wider audience. But despite the popular nature of Building the Impossible, Baillie didn’t see taking part as an extension of her job. “My intention of being involved with the program was never really to teach or educate about materials,” she says. “It was to generate the spirit of the excitement and discovery that science can be.” Part of that excitement came, she believes, because the team were asked not to discuss the challenge off-camera. “They wanted to film us going, ‘Wow! That’s it.’ They wanted to capture those sparks of discovery and invention. Many people who saw the program were amazed by how much fun it was. To me, science is fun and not just this boring thing that happens in labs with white coats.”

The first challenge was to match the achievements of the 17<+z6.5>th century Dutch inventor Cornelius Drebble, who reputedly built the first submarine. Twelve oarsmen are said to have rowed the submarine for a distance of seven miles underwater along the River Thames in London. “We had to think (a) how does a submarine work, and (b) how would it have worked in 1620,” explains Baillie. “For my part, I had to think about what materials they would have had.”

The critical issue was building a submarine out of wood without any leaks. “Wood absorbs water and swells, so you have to have enough space, if you like, for the wood to absorb enough moisture to swell and seal the joints,” she explains. “In between, you’d put sheep’s wool and tar to act as an adhesive.”

While some of these materials issues didn’t make it into the final edit, to Baillie’s disappointment, one particular argument did. “One of the main problems I had was convincing the team that being genuine to the materials of the day was just as important as being genuine to the general engineering of the day,” she explains. Eventually, the materials lose out in part to engineering and time pressures. The boat-builder wanted to use marine plywood. “I was furious. I was absolutely determined that we weren’t going to use marine ply. They just couldn’t understand that using a modern composite like marine ply was as a stupid as using a battery operated torch. In the end, we compromised. We used some marine ply and some oak,” she recounts. It’s these problems, tensions, and compromises — familiar to any scientist — that also make for watchable TV. Baillie<x@ <@$p>admits that the combination of engineers, traditional craftsmen, and the TV crew could get too much at times. But it was also the coming together of such a diverse group of experts that made the experience so worthwhile. “It even gave me an interest in history that I had never really had before,” she says.

The team’s other historical challenges included recreating the Roman catapult that laid siege to Jerusalem, an 18th century airship that had never been built, and a self-sealing Egyptian shaft tomb. Baillie regards the whole endeavor as a success. “The BBC have a particular audience in mind. They wouldn’t have got so many viewers who were not scientists if they had made it too technical. Thumbs-up to the BBC for even knowing that materials science existed in the first place, for involving a materials scientist, and for including as much materials science as they did.” It will be worth the effort, she says, if the show leads to more awareness of materials science as a discipline.

“My cousin’s eleven-year-old daughter Katie couldn’t stop asking me questions,” says Baillie. “That’s exactly the kind of response I want. We can look at the world and ask questions about it, and that’s what science is.” Regardless of whether Baillie and her teammates succeeded in building the impossible, this is the message that Baillie wants her audience to take home.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(03)00665-5