While there will certainly be those who object to a survey of scientists “who changed the world” which limits its scope to only those citizens of one country as nothing short of self-aggrandizing parochial nationalism, Genius of Britain, the five-part series produced for British television’s Channel 4 makes one very good case for it. Britain clearly has produced its share of innovative scientific minds, maybe more than its share. Besides, any history of science intended for the popular audience must limit its scope in some way, and focusing on the contributions of one country, so long as that country’s contributions are significant, makes as much sense as any other. It is not as though the series is claiming any sort of special greatness for their homegrown scientists; it does acknowledge the work of others. What it does claim is that perhaps the contributions of the Brits haven’t gotten quite the attention they deserve, and here is a historical survey that redresses the problem.
The current DVD release features the five episodes of the series on two discs including biographies of the various scientific talking heads presenting the material, a time line of British scientific accomplishments, and an article on the lesser known Rosalind Franklin. A third DVD with the two episodes of Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything which was seen on the Science Channel as Master of the Universe completes the set, which also includes a nine-page viewer’s guide which adds a good bit of material not covered in the episodes. Taken altogether the set provides a comprehensive overview of the subject with plenty of information entertainingly enough presented to keep the attention of even the most moderately scientifically literate viewer.
Genius of Britain is organized by centuries and focused on individual scientists and their contribution. Episode 1,”The First Five,” for example looks at the 17th century through what they call five “polymaths,” men with wide ranging interests in a variety of areas: Christopher Wren, certainly most famous as an architect, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Edmund Halley, and, of course, Isaac Newton. Each individual is discussed by a presenter who specializes in the scientist’s specific area of expertise. They include some biographical information and then go on to explain the importance of the scientist’s contributions in layman’s terms. The second episode moves into the 18th century and so on. The 20th century is split into two episodes, the first looks at the first half, and the second concentrates on the scientist’s efforts during the World Wars.
Among the many scientists discussed in the series are some of the most controversial like Charles Darwin, some of the lesser known like James Clark Maxwell, theoreticians like Hawking, and practical innovators like Isambard Brunel. Whenever possible they are sure to include any significant elements of human interest like controversies about the suicide of Alan Turing or the effect of Alfred Russell Wallace’s independently developed ideas on natural selection and the origin of species had on Darwin. Unlike many talking heads, the presenters—including David Attenborough, James Dyson and Kathy Sykes–are lively and dynamic; they are animated and their enthusiasm for their subject is obvious.
The Stephen Hawking DVD which attempts to explain Hawking’s search for a theory of everything is quite a bit more complex than the material from the other series. Valiant attempts are made to explain things like black holes and string theory, but I must admit, that they soared over the head of this viewer. More often than not I found myself more concerned with the mechanics of the man’s life than his ideas. Watching young scientists fill chalk boards with equations that have absolutely no meaning for one, can certainly take one down a peg. Still, there is something to be gained in getting a handle on your own lacunae. It’s time to get a hold of a copy of A Brief History of Time and see what I have been missing.