The series on The Cell that has just concluded on BBC 4 is possibly the best presentation of history of science that I’ve every seen on TV. No cringe-making reconstructions, just an informed and engaging presenter (Adam Rutherford) visiting the locations of key figures in the development of cell theory and repeating their experiments using their own technology. Result: a programme that recreated the genuine wonder of discovery for the viewer.
Rutherford made us care about the remarkable individuals who got us from medieval ideas about spontaneous generation to our modern understanding of how cells reproduce and differentiate to perpetuate life on earth. He evoked real sympathy for poor Robert Remak, the 19th-century German physiologist who proved definitively that all cells come from other cells – and that therefore we and all other life must trace our ancestry back to the same single cell. Remak’s so-called friend Rudolph Virchow pinched his idea, published it in a book and took all the credit.
The hero-based approach to history of science is rather frowned upon by academic historians. But for evidence that it works as a route in for the non-scientifically trained, see Lucy Mangan’s characteristically ebullient review in The Guardian.’It was, as ever, the incidental anecdotes about the pioneering investigators that lodged most firmly in the mind’, she says, and I couldn’t agree more.
Three cheers for Mangan, by the way, for not assuming that her readers think all science is boring and denigrating its practitioners accordingly.