Here’s the amiable academic Michael Moseley again for the second episode of The Story Of Science, dealing this week with the subject of matter and quantum physics, and the discovery of the very building blocks of life.
The tale begins in the Middle Ages with the alchemists, those quixotic researchers who, the history books tell us, pursued the secret of turning lead into gold. But far from the ‘deluded mystics’ or snake oil salesmen that popular history depicts them as, the alchemists laid the groundwork for modern, empirical science.
They took the ancient Greek belief that the world was made of fire, air, earth and water, and understood, as we do, that everything in existence can be reduced to simple building blocks, even if their particular choice of building blocks was somewhat wide of the mark.
Pioneering alchemist Henning Brand also believed that gold could be acquired by distilling human urine (they obviously drank a lot of Australian lager in the 17th century). The resulting matter, far from the material Brand was expecting, was, in fact, phosphorus.
With the crudest of equipment and often fumbling around in complete ignorance, the alchemists of the Middle Ages gave rise to the chemists, metallurgists and biologists of the modern age.
While last week’s story of astronomy was told via video postcards from across the globe, this week’s episode is, by contrast, full of gleeful moments of adolescent chemistry; the flashy, noisy glows and bangs of one of your more memorable science lessons at school. Petrified piddle is transformed into a hypnotically bright incandescent display; the discovery of oxygen is illustrated with slow-motion shots of the gas burning in test tubes.
Provoking interest in science through eye-catching demonstrations is nothing new, of course, as Moseley explains. The 18th century discovery of gases – or airs, as they were then called – led to the invention of the first hot air balloon in France, resulting in hugely popular test flights in front of a rapt populace.
Over the pond, scientific breakthroughs in Britain came from an unlikely source. Former Romantic poet Humphry Davy, who arrived at the Royal Institution in the late 18th century to practice his other obsession of chemistry, was a showman along the lines of PT Barnum, who, like the French with their gas bags, captivated the public with flashy displays of science in action, isolating potassium and making it flash, glow and explode.
In Moseley’s hands, the story of chemistry becomes a fascinating succession of happenstance and bizarre serendipity. Attempts to find gold yielded phosphorous, while attempts to artificially create quinine (the chemical which cures malaria) led to the discovery of mauve, the first synthetic dye.
The scientists that made these discoveries, meanwhile, were a weird collection of urine-obsessed alchemists, extroverted poets and, in the case of the pioneering chemist and physicist William Crookes, dabblers in necromancy.
Like those early balloon flights and explosive demonstrations of the power of chemicals, The Story Of Science is education as public event, a way of taking the essentials, the fundamental elements of the subject and distilling them into something flashy and enthralling for the masses. And if the basics of atoms and quantum theory are somewhat rushed – packed as they are into the episode’s final ten minutes – The Story Of Science remains a thoroughly watchable fulfilment of the Auntie’s ancient ‘inform, educate, entertain’ remit.
Read our review of the first episode here.
The Story Of Science airs on BBC2 Tuesdays at 9pm and BBC HD at 10:30pm.