BBC2, Wednesday 18 September 2013
Presented by Professor Brian Cox
In his new BBC2 documentary, Professor Brian Cox proudly leads us through 350 years of British science, focusing on its changing relationship with the public. In this first episode of the new Science Britannica series, Cox 'grapples with science's darker side, asking why it often gets such a bad press.'
Britain has an impressive scientific history, with the discovery of penicillin, electricity and evolution by natural selection standing as almost unrivalled achievements. Here, though, Cox argues that the most remarkable aspect of science in Britain is the level of public debate.
The programme begins with Cox getting misty-eyed over the year 1802, when the hottest tickets in town were to see the professor of chemistry Humphry Davy lecture at the Royal Institution.
While imitating Davy's experiment to an empty lecture theatre, Cox describes the 23-year-old chemistry professor as a good looking, charismatic but arrogant genius, and ardent communicator of science.
As Cox burns diamonds and drops them in liquid oxygen - an experiment to reveal that diamond is pure carbon - it becomes apparent that Cox sees himself as something of a modern-day Davy.
After the era of public support, the British public began to view science with increasing suspicion. This fear was captured in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which was inspired by the Italian scientist Giovanni Aldini, who first used electric currents to stimulate muscle (most notably the limbs of executed criminal George Forster in the Royal College of Surgeons in 1903).
Another great pioneer was the surgeon John Hunter in the late 18th century, who was arrested for illegally obtaining corpses, on which he would practice new surgical techniques. This doesn't look good, Cox admits and diagnoses a 'PR problem'.
The show is very different from the 'Wonders' series that brought Cox fame, but he's as enthusiastic as ever. Still, cinematic footage of planets and stars has been replaced with the 45-year-old professor navigating around London on public transport. One scene takes place in a disused hangar in Wales that was once home to the atomic bomb project. Yet Cox's contagious excitement when nitrogen triiodide reacts from the gentle touch of a feather is more reminiscent of a schoolboy than a CERN-physicist.
The end of the episode focuses on Professor Tipu Aziz, a neurosurgeon at the University of Oxford who works with Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), a surgical technique in which electrodes are implanted into the brain and electric current used to stimulate specific brain pathways. We meet a wheelchair-bound boy with dystonia, a disorder related to Parkinson's disease. The boy's recovery after DBS appears miraculous, and the technique's potential in dystonia, and other conditions, is clearly huge.
But the work is controversial as macaque monkeys were given a form of Parkinson's in early studies on DBS. Professor Cox strains for neutrality as he discusses the anti-vivisectionist movement, but the issue is given rather biased treatment.
Professor Aziz is a staunch defender of the use of animals for medical research, and I'm on his side. It was refreshing to hear him declare that he is not embarrassed, but privileged, to take part in developing such important treatment. His simple explanation is that fewer than 100 monkeys were used developing DBS, a technique which has already been used on 100,000 Parkinson's patients.
In reality, the number of monkeys used in research remains low, as other animals are used whenever possible. I find it particularly interesting that the idea of DBS makes many people feel uncomfortable, as we associate the invasive method either with shock therapy or Frankenstein. People might feel that Professor Aziz is 'playing God' more than other influential scientists whose work might lead to new drugs, just because we're more familiar with drugs as a form of treatment.