There’s something about London’s Natural History Museum that awakens the wonder-struck child in all of us. I was there only the other day, and from the moment my eyes locked onto the hollow orbits of the towering, motionless diplodocus, the mighty dinosaur skeleton that stands sentry in the building’s entrance, I reverted to the same excitable, awe-inspired eight-year-old I was the last time I visited.
Built in 1881, the Natural History Museum captured the spirit of an age that had just begun to awaken to the wonders of our planet. It was during the Victorian era that the old Biblical traditions that had dominated for centuries were swept aside by a new period of scientific discovery. Say what you like about the violence and evils of Victorian imperialism, the great leaps in geological and zoological knowledge were all made as an indirect result of this period of expansion.
The mad rush to build houses, and the subsequent quarrying of great swathes of land, lead to a new understanding of fossils and the formation of rocks. Decades upon decades of complete ignorance – where ancient seashells were, incredibly, thought to have come from the moon – were replaced by a greater knowledge of how species evolve.
Thanks to the newly mechanised printing press, remarkable books such as Robert Chambers’ Vestiges Of The Natural History Of Creation and Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species were disseminated to a hungry populace, despite the vehement protests of the Church. And thanks to the new network of railways which sprung up all over Britain, places like the Natural History Museum awoke a new thirst for knowledge to a class deprived of education for too long.
Episode three of The Story Of Science relates this remarkable story with humour and style. Presenter Michael Mosley charts the remarkable sea change from ignorance to enlightenment, from an enduring belief that the Earth was a mere 6,000 years old, to the realisation that our verdant planet is, in fact, shockingly old, and its species, far from the perfect, ordered creation as taught by the Bible, are in a constant state of competition and flux.
History is related with the kind of colour and glittering attention to detail that has become a series hallmark. We learn that print mogul and popular science writer Chambers was born with six fingers and six toes, and that the antiquity of our planet was first extrapolated by heating iron balls in a fire.
It’s all scintillating, inspiring stuff, and encapsulates the elusive spirit of the Natural History Museum, with its skeletal wonders and fossilised curiosities, in infectious, accessible style.
Read our review of episode 2 here.
The Story Of Science airs on BBC2 Tuesdays at 9pm and BBC HD at 10:30pm.