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Would you want to be a scientist in today's UK?
on 26 July 2010
I found this series entertaining, informative and in parts rather disturbing.
While the stories of generations of clever and imaginative British scientists are inspiring, the program, which ends with an invitation to get involved in science now, also makes it quite clear that such heroic feats are no longer possible in Britain.
As Richard Dawkins wryly observes, the discovery of the small pox vaccine, which was made by injecting the disease itself into a hapless human subject and then injecting the supposed vacine, would simply never get past an ethics committee now. Indeed such methods are commonly associated with evil scientists such as Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.
Similarly, confirmation that the spleen was not in fact an organ essential to life was made by means of a live vivisection on a dog. The necessity of the air we breathe to life was demonstrated by suffocating animals and birds to death in a glass chamber.
The series begins and ends with the sad story of Alan Turing, who died a squalid, lonely death at 41 after being persecuted be the British state for his homosexuality. The thanks Turing got for pioneering the computer, the idea for which which may have originated in his love for a schoolfriend who died young and whose mind Turing imagined living on after his death, was to be offered a choice of chemical castration or a prison term.
Although Dawkins and co. clearly want us to get engaged with science, their admirable fidelity to the truth means that they can't hide facts that get in the way of the message they are trying to send. The series thus ends with the present on a somewhat hesitant note. Are we to take Dawkins and his co-presenter Stephen Hawking as the contemporary role models for scientists? Is the only scientist who matters one who appears in the media?
Also, science is, and always has been, a global pursuit, an inquiry without national borders. Regardless of the contribution made by a single country to science and the well-being of all humans, is a program that excludes the wider world to concentrate on a single nation not deeply, and anachronistically parochial?
The narrative of British scientific achievement that the series provides peters out in the mid 20th century due to British national decline and American ascendency. Take the case of penicillan, which was invented in Britain but could only be manufactured in feasible quantities in America.
If you want to be where the action is in science, the program implies despite itself, then go to the US or somewhere else. Otherwise, you can always make films about past glories from your comfortable sinecure at Oxbridge.