“Quarks & Co.” From Idea to TV Show

Physicist and presenter Ranga Yogeshwar had the idea for the show “Quarks & Co.”; Photo: WDR
Physicist and presenter Ranga Yogeshwar had the idea for the show “Quarks & Co.” | Photo: WDR

If by the end her mother has understood all the different sections of the programme, Monika Grebe knows she has done a good job, for that is her goal as editor of the science show “Quarks und Co.”: “Our programme is designed to explain highly complex issues so clearly that every viewer can understand them.”

Quarks und Co. is one of the most successful science magazine programmes on German television. Launched in 1993, this 45-minute show broadcast by regional TV station Westdeutscher Rundfunk Cologne (WDR) turns the spotlight on one scientific topic each week. Every episode features a number of sections, each of which explores a different aspect of the topic. The programme aims to be both informative and entertaining. It is not intended for an expert audience but for anyone interested in science. This explains why nearly a million viewers tune in, accounting for 3.1 percent of the total German TV public – a very high figure for an information show. To elucidate scientific phenomena, experiments are performed in the studio, with surprising results. Presenter Ranga Yogeshwar – who also had the idea for the show – likes to get personally involved in the experiments. A physicist and science editor, he sat alongside Formula 1 driver Nick Heidfeld in a racing car to find out how his heart would react to the thrill of high-speed driving. He also tested the effects of alcohol on himself by drinking himself into a state of inebriation under controlled scientific conditions.

Using animated clips to explain facts

In one episode about Cologne Cathedral entitled “The Vulnerable Giant”, visualization by means of graphic elements played an important role. The title of the show, which was edited by Monika Grebe, was a reference to the fact that Germany’s most-visited building is a permanent building site. The facts relating to the Gothic cathedral were presented in an animated clip, with visual size comparisons and impressive figures making the dimensions of the world’s third-largest church clear to the viewers.

It took Monika Grebe an awful lot of hard work to get the show ready, however. Her first step was to visit the city library, where she got hold of some reading matter about Cologne’s landmark building. “Only once I have a good overview of the material in question do I get together with our staff to identify appropriate themes.” Around six freelance authors are involved in each programme, producing the individual sections. In all, more than 20 authors work for Quarks und Co.. Almost all have a university degree, in subjects like physics, history or music. Monika Grebe herself studied biology.

Surprising stories preferred

When she first meets with the authors, Monika gathers together the best ideas, trying particularly to highlight surprising aspects and stories that have not been told before. Lots of suggestions are put forward – some are rejected, while others are followed up by the authors. They interview experts and read specialist literature. The topics are finalized at a second meeting. “The individual sections have to be informative and new, but they also need to be presented in a gripping way”, Monika explains. In the case of Cologne Cathedral, for example, the story of the damaged bell was told: in 2011, the bell’s clapper broke. Now scientists are working on a new one that has to sound exactly the same as the old one. To give the story a more dramatic touch, the researchers themselves took centre stage – would they succeed in creating just the right sound? The camera followed the scientists as they worked to ensure that the clapper would have precisely the right weight – to the nearest gram – to ring the bell. A fascinating tale of precision and applied science!

What happens when the ground beneath the cathedral begins to quake?

The editors are also not afraid to tackle really tricky issues. One section, for instance, looked at the cathedral’s stability. “It is a question of natural frequency and resonance – i.e. highly complex physical aspects”, Monika explains. But that is exactly what she believes to be the job of science journalists – to simplify things in such a way that anyone can understand them, though without becoming too imprecise and certainly without spreading falsehoods. To visualize the scientific problem in question, the editorial team built a model in the studio. Three towers of different heights were created, each vibrating at different levels of intensity when the ground was given a jolt. “This allowed us to illustrate what happens to the cathedral when there is an earthquake, and why it doesn’t immediately collapse”, says Monika. “I believe that any topic, no matter how complex, can be explained comprehensibly in this way.”

Final touches prior to recording

Dates for shooting are only agreed once it has been decided exactly how the individual sections are to appear on television. After shooting, the authors have to edit the sections and add the voiceover and music. So much can still change during this process – in some cases the sections do not work or the research produces unexpected results. Then the concept has to be adapted. “The show is in a state of flux from start to finish”, says Monika. “It is constantly changing.” The job of the editor is to coordinate this process. Finally, the script is written for the show and Monika meets with the presenter, Ranga Yogeshwar, with whom she discusses the planned studio experiments. Graphic and stage designers are also brought in. The final touches are made to the show right up to the day of recording. “When it is finally shown on TV I often watch it at home on my sofa”, says Monika. “Or with my mother.” She is her most important critic, after all – and so far has always understood everything.