If you missed the BBC’s brilliant ‘The Challenger’ the other night, hurry up and watch it on iPlayer while you still can. Sensitively handled and superbly written, it was a riveting account of the Rogers Commission, set up by then President Ronald Reagan, into the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, in which all seven crew members lost their lives. What the commission found was a series of cover-ups and conspiracies, exposed by a few brave whistle-blowers. And what helped them explain this to an audience when the commission presented its findings was great presentation theatre.
The drama focuses on eminent physicist Richard Feynman (a star turn by William Hurt), and his steady, rigorous and heartfelt quest to unearth the cause of the disaster. Feynman is first seen getting a wildly enthusiastic reception from students in a lecture hall as he demonstrates advanced principles of physics using a ball and chain, at what looks to be great risk. His stunt is simple, dramatic – and utterly explanatory.
As Feynman persists through obstructions, his own illness and at times the outright mischief of others, he brings the truth to light. Stonewallers in the commission, as well as those who helped him, ask him to explain the technical reasons for the failure of the Space Shuttle – in a way that the audience will understand.
This he does with another stunning piece of theatre, involving an engine part and a jug of ice, putting beyond any doubt what went wrong. It’s mesmerising stuff, and yet we never forget the tragedy that started it all.
So what can we learn from this? Lots, but these points stand out for me:
- That metaphor can be hugely powerful in helping an audience understand complex concepts.
- That theatre as part of a presentation glues the audience to what’s going on.
- And beyond the presentation aspects of Feynman’s big reveal, there’s a lot in ‘The Challenger’ about whistle-blowers and ethics. Which is highly relevant for us all right now.
- That the answer often lies in the data. Feynman is heard muttering about ‘variables’ early on, undeterred by Challenger’s 2.5 million parts.
For more on the drama, check out these links: