I had to heave a sigh, not for the first time, when during last night’s BBC University Challenge quarter-final the otherwise frighteningly well-informed Pembroke College Cambridge team failed to identify Dorothy Hodgkin from the Royal Society stamp issued last year.
Most of them are reading for science degrees, too. They did have a stab – after a hasty discussion, the electron density map at the top of the stamp seemed to give them a clue. DNA, someone ventured (it’s actually Vitamin B12). Rosalind Franklin! She has always been better known than Dorothy, not so much for the invaluable role she played in the solution of the DNA structure, but for her subsequent caricaturing by Jim Watson and the fully justified backlash that followed. But it wasn’t the answer Jeremy Paxman was after, and they uncharacteristically failed to add to their eventual winning total of 240 points.
I did what I could last year – Dorothy’s centenary – to raise her profile, touring Hidden Glory and contributing to a day in her memory at the Royal Society. But it seems that even the distinction of being Britain’s only female science Nobelist is not enough to penetrate the consciousness of the best young Cambridge minds.
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.