Genius of Britain (DVD)

The scientists who changed the world.

In the late 17th century, no one knew what a flea actually looked like. To them, it was a tiny black dot, invisible unless you somehow held one right up to your eye. Robert Hooke was a poor, scrawny, and allegedly hunchbacked young man consumed with the idea of what those little bastards really were. To get to an answer, he constructed what history now remembers as the first compound microscope, and he placed a flea under the glass. “What he saw must have taken his breath away,” says evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. The flea was not a mere black dot, but a truly alien creature, with metallic-looking skin, glass-like eyes, hideous tufts of hair, and multiple legs ending in vicious hook claws. This small moment opened up the entire world to the unseen all around us, and Hooke went on to become one of England’s top scientists.

Cool story, huh? Anecdotes like that are everywhere in five-part series Genius of Britain.

genius of britain

Each episode of the series covers five or six scientists from an era, beginning with the mid-1600s and jumping ahead each century per episode until it reaches the present day. The episode is introduced by Dr. Stephen Hawking, and segments on specific scientists are narrated by modern-day British scientists in the same field. There’s usually a theme running throughout the episode, showing how all of the historic scientists’ work combined resulted in a major discovery or invention.

Sounds pretty boring when I describe it like that, isn’t it? Fortunately, the creators offer info on not just the scientists’ discoveries, but their lives and personalities as well. This gives the whole thing some genuine human drama to go along with the tech speak. Who knew that Halley, discoverer of Halley’s Comet, traveled around the world on the high seas in his younger days, battling and defeating pirates? Or that Isaac Newton was so eccentric and antisocial that he often argued and fought with others in the scientific community? Some of these great minds were amazing wealthy, living it up among high society, while others were crud-poor, devising world-changing inventions originally to make their squalid lives easier.

genius of britain

If there’s anything the many scientists profiled have in common, it’s obsession. Once they get an idea or question in their heads, they are driven to find the answer, no matter what. The earlier episodes were far more entertaining, when science was about traveling the world and building crazy contraptions. As we get closer to the present, tinkering becomes blueprints and exploration becomes lab work. That’s not to say that the 19th and 20th century scientists didn’t make major contributions, it’s just that their stories didn’t quite have that same “Adventures in Science” feel to it. The final episode has Hawking and Dawkins sit down for a chat about where they believe science is headed in the future.

Throughout the show’s five-episode run, everyone shows disdain for superstition, especially when talking about good ol’ Charles Darwin. Darwin didn’t publish his famous theory of evolution for many years, fearing what the dominating church would think of it. The interviewees in this series hold Darwin high up on a pedestal, barely hiding their disdain for anyone who dares disagree with him. What I’m trying to say here is, if you’re super-religious and on the other side of the Darwin debate, then this is totally not the show for you.

For a bonus feature, we’ve got a third disc with a whole other movie on it, Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything, in which Hawking discusses his ongoing search to discover how, specifically, the universe came into being. In addition to his brilliant mind and all he’s accomplished despite suffering from a debilitating disease, another of Hawking’s gifts is his ability to make far-out, complex concepts easy to understand for ordinary folks. This includes topics like quantum mechanics, string theory, and the M-force. (Didn’t the M-force fight the X-Men that one time?) Also, there are biographies of the show’s presenters, and a 12-page booklet containing additional science facts.

I had a lot of fun with this one. It’s filled with interesting stories and intriguing personalities who helped shaped the world of science over the centuries. Anyone with an interest in history and, yes, science should check it out.

The Verdict

Not science guilty!

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