I’ve always been a fan of TV programmes that make me think or teach me something new. While science at school left me cold (apart from the one time I managed to electrocute myself in a chemistry lesson – don’t ask), as I get older, the complex and frankly difficult subject has much more appeal, and that’s largely thanks to some top-quality television shows. I still may be at the bottom of the class, but I love the likes of Horizon, Equinox and pretty much anything fronted by Professor Brian Cox.
In recent years, he’s become something of a poster boy for the BBC and any science-based stuff, though when watching him, it’s no real surprise. Quite apart from his relaxed, effortless style of presenting, he is – unlike some hosts – actually qualified to discuss and explore chemistry, physics and biology, and does it in such a way that never makes him look like a smart-arse. But most of all, at least for me, it’s the sheer, unadulterated joy Cox gets when performing or recreating an experiment that gives me the biggest buzz. I remember Jeremy Clarkson, on his talk show, throwing all sorts of metal rubbish into a microwave, just to see how big a bang he could get, and thought at the time it was childish nonsense designed merely to amuse the Top Gear star. When you see Cox expertly mixing together various chemicals to produce a reaction, there’s a purpose to it that goes far beyond a simple flash and bang.
Science Britannica brings together all this and more, and in the opening instalment, it explored the contributions made by British boffins to the scientific world through their inventions and discoveries. Cox got the ball rolling with a reflection on how, despite the massive leaps that have been made in the past century or so, science and the men and women who work in it, can sometimes be painted as villains in the media. He asked whether the negative press was sometimes justified – and whether it was sometimes worth it to get to a much-needed end result.
Cox told lurid tales of grave robbers who furnished curious Victorian medics with cadavers, so breakthroughs in surgical techniques could be made, explored the origins of nuclear fission (using little more than a blackboard and chalk) and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He chronicled how the amazing work of Crick and Watson, the first to make a model of our DNA, led to the controversy of GM crops, and spoke to a man whose deep-brain experiments on monkeys have allowed hundreds of people with Parkinson’s disease to claw back their lives. It was a breathless, dizzying hour of television that left me wanting more, more, more.
If someone as (let’s be honest) thick as me in the ways of science can be transported by Cox and Science Britannica, then imagine what sort of impression it could have on younger, more agile minds? If I ruled the world, then this inspiring series would be shown in schools up and down the land.
Contributed by Scheenagh Harrington