At the risk of sounding like a Carlsberg advert, “The Journal of the Left-handed Biochemist doesn’t do award ceremonies, but if we did…” – what would be the winner of “Best Science programme” during the last 12 months?
In truth, I think it has been a bumper year for science programmes. There has been a tangible return to form at Horizon – the first three episodes of the current series, for example, have all included significant coverage of molecular biology. There were commendable features to the mini-series Prof Regan’s Diet Clinic/Medicine Cabinet/Nursery/Health Spa (I have posted a separate review of Prof Regan’s Medicine Cabinet here) although it did let itself down at times by commiting some of the same mistakes it was accusing others of making. Pitched at a slightly different audience, it is also good to welcome Bang Goes the Theory to finally fill a gap in popular science coverage left empty since the demise of Tomorrow’s World around 2003.
The BBC Four War Beneath the Skin season in the late summer was consistently strong. Breaking the Mould: The Story of Penicillin helped to amend the traditional account of the birth of antibiotics as therapeutics and Spanish Flu: The Forgotten Fallen recreated events surrounding the battle to protect Manchester from the 1918 influenza epidemic (it also gave them a chance to re-transmit Mutant Mouse and Superfly, documentaries on research using model organisms, from 2004).
My winner of the grand prize would be another programme from that season. Adam Rutherford’s Cell – a 3-part series The Hidden Kingdom, The Chemistry of Life and The Spark of Life – was outstanding. Of the three, it is The Chemistry of Life that is my outright favourite.
The programme tells the story of the identification of DNA as the molecule of inheritance. Beginning with Friedrich Miescher’s original isolation of DNA in 1868, and his amazing determination of its chemical composition, the episode reflects on the key experiments of Theodore Boveri, Thomas Hunt Morgan, Fred Griffith, Oswald Avery, Maurice Wilkins & Rosalind Franklin, James Watson & Francis Crick, culminating with Walter Gehring’s discovery and characterisation of homeobox genes in the 1980s and 1990s (more details can be seen in my notes on the programme, via this link).
The Chemistry of Life can serve as an excellent component of an introductory module on molecular biology for first year undergraduates. Important discoveries are laid out in an accurate yet engaging way. I particularly like the way that the episode naturally demonstrates the evolution of scientific ideas.
The programme has a certain “yuk factor” that serves to keep it captivating for a youthful audience; description of Miescher’s isolation of pus from the sheets of wounded soldiers and footage of a transgenic Drosophila fly with eyes all over its body being two examples. The episode also has its lighter moments – Rutherford’s visit to the Bay of Naples includes him partaking of a local delicacy as he eats raw urchin gonad straight from the spine-encrusted shell. Later on he deliberately burns his arm with a hot spoon, but it is evident that it was rather hotter than he intended. Perhaps best of all, archive footage of Maurice Wilkins describing ‘MOWlecules’ with received pronunciation and his explanation that X-rays are “wavy” were reminiscent of the Mr Cholmondley-Warner sketches from the old Harry Enfield series.
Having said that, the film would be a useful teaching resource for first year undergraduates, I think that you would want to include time to emphasise the main points and to put back some of the detail that has inevitably been skipped. For example, fuller description of the basis of Griffith’s experiments with smooth and rough strains of Streptococcus pneumoniae would be beneficial. It is a minor irritation that no on-screen captioning supports the introduction of dead scientists, so offering a class a sheet with the names of the individuals might help students to structure any notes they wished to take.
Do you think a different science programme is more worthy of the title “Best Science Programme of the year”? If so, how about using the comment facility to share your suggestions.