The Cell (2009)
Videos in this documentary
n this fascinating series, Dr Adam Rutherford explores the history of our understanding of the cell – from the first observations of the cellular structure of plants, right through to modern research in synthetic biology. It is a story of rivalries and secrecy, mistakes and accidents, and sudden insights that overturned scientific and religious dogma. Controversial on every level, what has been discovered about how the cell creates life defies the laws of physics and chemistry. The Search for the Cell reveals the bewildering diversity of life on the planet made it impossible to believe that all living things have one common building block. Until the 19th century, no one had any idea what a cell was or in what way it was significant. Dr Adam Rutherford uncovers the history of the search for the cell – from the great geniuses who got it wrong to the laymen who got it right. The Universe Inside the Cell shows the search for the magic ingredient, the secret of life, led scientists deep into the complex inner workings of the cell and revealed its fantastic complexity. It’s a world of particles that behave illogically; of lifeless chemicals that come to life; of simple blueprints that can replicate with crazy diversity and a universe so intricate that it’s almost impossible to grasp. The Origin of Life asks: how did cells evolve? The scientific mystery of how life began remains unsolved. But scientists have struggled to answer the question with some surprising results. In this programme, Adam reveals how mankind is on the cusp of one of the most audacious and controversial scientific ideas of all time – synthetic biology. An idea that may mean we will have to reassess our definition of life – because we are on the verge of creating it from scratch.
The Cell (BBC Four): TV review by Benji Wilson
Published: 5:37PM BST 12 Aug 2009
Benji Wilson reviews BBC Four's The Cell, a new three-part series about the discovery of cells, plus the latest instalment of Who Do You Think You Are?
For the blithely ill-informed, mainstream science programming needs to be informative enough to make us feel clever, but not so recondite as to make us feel dumb. Last night’s The Cell (BBC Four), the first episode in a three-part history of the discovery of cells presented by Dr Adam Rutherford, got it just about spot-on. It had a pleasing narrative, full of part-time nobodies with homemade microscopes trouncing fusty snobs with astonishing discoveries; it had some pantomime villains passing off the work of the nobodies as their own; and it had some wondrously silly gobbets with which to amaze your friends, such as the one about the scientist who thought you could make a mouse with a sweaty shirt and some wheat.
That Rutherford ran a control experiment with his own sweaty shirt just to check that the whole gym kit+cereal=rodent paradigm was bogus, tells you something of the programme’s only real weakness – it thought it needed to dress up the facts with ironic “yoof” appeal. Whereas in this case the facts were so engrossing that Huw Edwards could have read them out over the test card and it would have been worth watching.
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Cells, we learned, were discovered by a 17th-century Dutch linen merchant named Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek, who had a thing for making microscopes. (Linen merchants knew about lenses because they used them to check thread-counts.) With his exceptional lens-craft Van Leeuwenhoek started looking at whatever came to hand – lake water, sperm, the gunk on his teeth. He thought he was seeing miniature versions of normal animals, which he called “animalcules”. The path of scientific progress, the programme thus showed, is strewn with the rocks of daft misapprehension. In getting it approximately right, even the cleverest guys get it magnificently wrong (see mice, wheat, shirts).
Rutherford himself, a science journalist, was clever, young, handsome, and telegenic. So one took an instant dislike to him. He cast himself as the Ali G of cell biology, at one point offering “respect” to the venerable 19th-century botanist Robert Brown for his work on both atomic and cell theory.
To their credit, the producers seem to have realised that Dr Adam might grate a little. They were happy to show him being taken down a peg, and their weapon of choice was Dutch people. Several lugubrious Netherlanders were shown to be as impressed by Adam and his camera as a cat is by calculus.
Hans Loncke, a crafter of minuscule lenses like the ones Van Leeuwenhoek laboured over, was the star of the show. “What am I looking at here?” said Rutherford, in rhetorical presenter-speak. “At the wrong side,” said Loncke, turning the microscope round.
In the end, whether or not the cut of Rutherford’s gib was to your liking scarcely mattered because the story he told was so momentous. Rutherford placed the discovery that animals and plants are all made of cells right up there with Darwin’s theory of evolution and the discovery of DNA. As a concept it’s still hard to believe – all life on earth came from a single cell. All life on earth shares a family tree.
On that basis Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC One) should really have been tracing actress Kim Cattrall right back to a single, probably impeccably-toned-for-its-age amoeba, but they only had an hour so they stopped at her grandfather George.
Cattrall was brought up in Canada but born in Liverpool in 1956. Her mother’s father disappeared 70 years ago, and she wanted to know what had happened to him. “I don’t anticipate happiness,” she said. “I think it’s going to end in tears.” (Words as superfluous as, “I wonder if we’ll discover something unforeseen in the Family Records Office,” for WDYTYA? regulars.)
What made this a particularly enthralling episode was that it was driven by anger. George Braugh, the missing grandfather, had been a very bad boy. He had walked out on Cattrall’s grandmother one day and never come back, leaving her with three kids to fend for in post-Depression Toxteth.
George got worse the more you knew him. “Son of a bitch” was Cattrall’s epithet of choice, twice. He had tried to stowaway to New York, failed, remarried – making him a bigamist – and had gone on to father another family, which he had dragged to Australia.
Cattrall went back to Canada to tell her folks that the man they thought was a real toad was, in fact, even more of a real toad than that.
“All of the women I meet are absolutely fantastic,” she said, sounding a little like Blanche DuBois. “A lot of the men seem to be… gone. And slightly disappointing.”