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TV Review: The Cell - The Hidden Kingdom

24 August 2009
By Jenny Dunlop
Senior Infertility Counsellor, St Mary’s Hospital, Manchester
Appeared in BioNews 522

The Cell: The Hidden Kingdom

BBC4, Wednesday 12 August 2009

Presented by Dr Adam Rutherford

'The Cell: The Hidden Kingdom', BBC4, Wednesday 12 August 2009 (presented by Dr Adam Rutherford)

The title of this programme may have unfortunately deterred people from looking at the first of this three-part series. Because if you were expecting a purely scientific programme you would have been disappointed, as instead Dr Rutherford told the most extraordinary story of the scientific quest to discover the secrets of the cell and cell-division. It was as much an historical journey as it was a scientific journey, which looked at the difficulties that are inherent with any new discovery. He showed how the perceived wisdom of how creation was viewed was turned on its head and the fascinating obsessions of different men both scientific and non-scientific who made these discoveries possible. Mixed in the narrative were also illuminating insights into the psychological issues that both hampered and created this story of life, including obsessional behaviour, bruised egos and consequent establishment rejection, and jealousy leading to plagiarism.

The presenter started the story back in 1674 when a Dutch Linen Merchant, called Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek developed the most powerful lens of the time to look at his linen, and then at the components of water and began to see what were called animalcules. He sent these findings to the Royal Society in London, who promptly rejected his ideas thinking they were crazy and ridiculed him. Their motto at the time was given them by Charles II ‘Take no one's word for it'. So they did this, until eventually Robert Hook, a Member of the Royal Society, took seriously his work and in essence Biology was born. Van Leeuwenhoek then started to turn one of his microscopes on himself (in all he built 247 microscopes so obsessed was he with his findings), and started looking at his blood, tarter from his teeth and his semen. He was therefore the first known man to look at a sample of semen. Because of the mores of the time he assured people that it was obtained post intercourse!

Dr Rutherford then took the story to Paris where Louis Pasteur in wanting to win a prestigious prize proved that ‘Spontaneous Generation' (the belief that animal life was created spontaneously, e.g. a mouse was created from sweat and wheat grains) was irrational. This overturned the medieval thinking and religious dogma of the day.

The story was not only interesting because of the scientific findings but also because Dr Rutherford tried to make the people behind these findings as real as possible whether they were scientists or not. This included the remarkable Joseph Jackson Lister, a Wine Merchant who also became obsessed by microscopes and produced the first microscope with more than one lens.

The presentation of this programme was very slick and easy to access whatever your background. The presenter (I presume new to the BBC) has a very natural style and I would suggest was camera-friendly. The mixture of old portraits of the key players in this story and new technological images gelled well together. Although I am usually critical of many programmes which send their presenters all over the world for some small piece of information, the movement around Europe to different establishments in Holland, Paris and Berlin seemed appropriate to back-up the story.

The presenter said at the beginning of the programme that this was basically one of the most important stories about the theory of everything. He likened the discovery of the cell with the other two most important scientific discoveries, that of the ‘Theory of Evolution' and the discovery of ‘DNA'. The programme was an overview and for some possibly it would appear to rush through centuries and seem rather simplistic. However for someone who is not a scientist it held my attention throughout and I will be watching the other two programmes in the series.

The Cell: The Hidden Kingdom
BBC Four |  18 August 2009
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