It's not easy to capture the entire history of scientific endeavour in six hours, but this series certainly offers an interesting and easily accessible overview. It also highlights some of the lesser-known characters from the last 500 years, not just the big names. So although Darwin and Galileo certainly appear, they don't hog entire programmes. Each of the six programmes follows a theme through history; an understanding of the solar system, the development of chemistry, how geology influenced the theory of evolution, how humans have sought to power their lives, and so on. If you've never quite understood what atoms are or how evolution works, then this might be your chance to find out!
The presenter, Michael Mosley, reconstructs many initial experiments to demonstrate how great-breaking (or just plain weird) they were. This isn't stuffy, schoolroom science: it's an explanation of how the evolution of scientific understanding is intimately interwoven with society's development. Ways of thinking generate discoveries which in turn affect society and allow the next set of intertwined developments. This series makes it perfectly clear that `science' isn't separate from humanity, and it's not the work of single individuals in isolation who have `eureka' moments. Most science is collaborative or builds upon previous work, layers and layers peeling back to reveal something closer to the truth at each stage. The BBC have aimed to present the story of how scientific ideas shaped the modern world and how science made history.What is out there, what is the world made of, where did we come from?
The filming uses very familiar techniques; a bit of globe-trotting to picturesque locations and plenty of talking to camera in famous places where Things Were Discovered. This series also uses a graphic timeline to try to illustrate it idea of interconnectedness, which is not entirely successful. However, the episodes avoid the main flaw of much modern TV in that they don't endlessly repeat themselves and we don't have to watch the same footage repeated over and again with an increasingly `dramatic' voiceover and screeching music. The Story of Science is altogether more matter of fact and approachable, and all the better for it.
Michael Mosley comes over as a likeable, knowledgeable guy. He doesn't quite have the high-wattage appeal of particle physicist Brian Cox (Wonders Of The Solar System [DVD] ) or evolutionary biologist Armand Leroi(National Geographic: Darwin's Secret Notebooks [DVD]  [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]). Mosley's script is deliberately plain, too, not like Leroi's occasionally dazzling use of language which can be inspirational and challenging. In fact, the whole of Story of Science feels as if it was designed to be very accessible and not put too much strain on the audience. So it's great if you don't have any previous interest in or knowledge of the scientific world. Viewers with an interest in popular science might yearn for a little more depth, or maybe some linguistic flair in the presentation, however.
The six episodes of 60 minutes each come on two discs and offer heaps of viewing. This series is also available on Blu-Ray, although the photography isn't so wonderful that I'd pay extra for a high-def version. (Quite a few of the segments are standard bits snaffled from the photo library, showing gas swirls in space, volcanoes exploding, and so on). So although I haven't learned a huge amount of new material from this series, I have found it to be very enjoyable viewing. It should be extremely useful for anyone starting to study the sciences, and will give older viewers a chance to discover how our understandings have changed in the last couple of decades.