Science Britannica

If you haven’t already caught Brian Cox’s new series on BBC2, Science Britannica, it’s worth catching on iPlayer. I enjoyed the combination of a bit of history, a bit of science, a bit of opinion, and a bit of blowing stuff up! The series got a pasting both online and in the Independent and I guess, as with most TV programs, the issues of life are far more complex that 3 hours of public broadcasting can do justice to.

The first program, ‘Frankenstein and Monsters’, covered the early attempts at re-animation with electricity, the development of atomic  weapons, genetically modified crops and animal testing. It also had a dramatic demonstration of nitrogen tri-iodine exploding! The science history stuff is nice, but the program never quite gets down to the hard choices society needs to start thinking about. Highlighting the use of higher primates to develop a successful treatment for Parkinson’s was good, but left the issue a bit lop-sided. The choices that society faces in regard to animal testing (and the other issues) are not so clear cut: especially with experiments where the outcomes are not so rosy. I’d like to have seen some time given to scientists with views that opposed the ones given in the programs (and I’m not the only one). But somehow we need to get out of the philosophy where ‘science’ ends up with the bad press, while the public get safe medicines and cheaper food!

The second program deals with ‘Method and Madness’ and has an interesting section on how scientist’s brains work (which for me, as a scientist working in a University, explained a lot!) I enjoyed the episodes patriotic ‘flag waving’: there are too many programs out there that get their kicks by bashing the home team. British science has a history to be proud of, and bringing it down for it’s failings and mistakes misses the benefits to society it has brought. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm carried over into the section about the peer-review and journal publication, and although I thought this section was really good at highlighting how the scientific community gets to a consensus of opinion, statements like “(the) sum of all human knowledge is here” was over egging it!

The final program, Clear Blue Skies, deals with the balance between blue sky research and applied targeted science. Again, the facts as stated (like whether screening large compound libraries actually produces more drugs) can be contested, but the issues are real and well presented. Having spend my PhD doing blue-sky research and finding myself Dr Unemployable in the mid-90’s, I’m a blue sky skeptic and while it seems that pausing to understand ‘serendipitous observations’ is sensible, the program missed a chance to talk about the really expensive science which has no immediate practical advantage beyond confirming the presence of the Higgs boson.

All three programs have lovely examples of ‘home brew’ experiments performed by some of the early science pioneers, but I can’t help smiling that the cool bits look suspiciously like chemistry rather than physics!

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