Inside my body – BBC programming hits the spot.

I have watched the first two episodes of BBC One’s ‘Inside the Human Body’, and I have been so thoroughly impressed by it, I feel I need to share my feelings, and explain why it has touched a special nerve.

When I was explaining the latest episode to a friend over a glass of wine (thus explaining my lack of eloquence), I called the programme ‘Inside my Body.’  This embodies the cleverest, but probably the most textbook trick in the science communication book.  It is the first lesson I learned—that people don’t care about humans, they care about people.  And in the introduction to each episode, Michael Mosely acts out an exercise in making you care.  He introduces the people you will meet in the next hour like a skilled host at a dinner party, with an interesting fact that will make you want to hear their story, and then throws in a smattering of ‘you’.  Within the introduction, ‘you’ and ‘your’ are used five times.  You are described a

s the most extraordinary survival machine, and you have the most complex brain in the planet.  I’m feeling pretty impressed with myself by this time, and the programme hasn’t even begun.  I defy anyone to turn a blind eye to such an onslaught of compliments.

Yes, yes, it’s a trick to make you care, to make you watch it all the way through so you can see exactly how the ‘Ice man’ is like you, or what Gerald is going to do about dying.  It is an incredibly transparent trick, but by god does it work.  I like it, and even if it does seem a little overdone at times, I don’t see why my biological existence shouldn’t be flattered once in a while.

So once you’re past the compliments, the real fun begins.  The CGI graphics are, quite frankly, stunning.  Now, I don’t know anything about how this sort of programme is conceived (will do soon!) but I would like to imagine that the entire thrust behind this show was to bring the best possible graphics to the table and to make me sit open mouthed at the sheer spectacle of it.  If that wasn’t the plan, then someone give Rushes Postproduction (you will not know how many tries it took to catch that on the credits) and the people who commissioned them an oversized trophy for the best inadvertent showstealer. When you are watching a baby shifting around in the womb and it suddenly strikes you that there is no way that could really be filmed and it is, in fact, an animation… well that’s when I nearly fell out of my chair.

The reason I am willing to believe that the mind-blowingly good graphics were put there on purpose was because of the otherwise appalling CGI that other BBC programmes are blessed with.  I’m not going to name and shame, you’ll have to play catch the credit as I did, but I will just propose:

Merlin.

Enough gushing about the animation.

With popular science programmes today, as I am sure has always been the case, a fundamental fear must be whether the audience will understand.  It is impossible to cater for every possible audience, and it seems the overall effort is to err on the side of low-brow.  Inevitably, then, the more informed members of the public will doubtless feel patronised and indignant, and write a letter to Points of View etc, etc.  But catering for those PoV contributors will leave the greater portion of the public in the dark.  Inside my body (as I am going to keep affectionately calling it) includes human biology scarcely more complex than most A-Level syllabuses (syllabi?), much to the satisfaction, I’m sure, of students currently revising for their exams.  Well communicated with a personal touch .  And for those who have a tendency to feel patronised, I would hazard a guess that the stunning animation (did I mention that already?) would keep the indignation at bay.

Can I just add at this point that I really like Michael Mosley.  Not that that has any bearing on anything, but I just like to spend an hour listening to him.  Is that odd? Probably.

Onwards.  I have mentioned already the personal introductions we are given at the beginning of the programme, and if Dr M isn’t enough to keep you watching, chances are you will stay tuned in to follow those stories.  And what is good about them is that they are not overdone.  We meet them, from newborn baby Tyreece to 84-year-old Gerald.  We hear their story, what makes them important, what makes them special, and then we move on.  The end result is something incredibly moving.

I was shocked when I was shown the moment of Tyreece’s birth, and I was on an emotional and moral precipice when I watched Gerald’s last breath.  Should I have access to such important moments in these people’s lives from my computer, from my living room? It seems inherently wrong and yet it was presented so gently, so unassumingly, that it seemed to propose a sort of moral lesson.  It said look, if a major programming corporation can take life and death in their stride, accepting it and not shirking away from it, you should too.  Not in a brash, uncaring way, but instead don’t be afraid of it.  It happens to everyone, and it’s ok.  I cried when Gerald died, and I had only known him for 10 minutes.  The knife edge that was walked was navigated successfully, and it was tasteful and very, very moving.

My final point of unadulterated praise is also on the subject of taste.  It is clear, simply from the introduction, that filming took place all over the world.  The programme seeks to embrace diversity, and many cultural and ethnic representatives are figured.  I would be very surprised if they were all found in West London.  But the point is that you don’t notice.  You watch it and think ‘Yes, that is our diverse world.’ There are black people, white people, Asian people, and even ruddy looking people in silly hats.  Unlike some recent programmes that should remain nameless (should, but won’t ahem… Brian Cox: Wonders of the Universe…ahem), the show doesn’t boast about where it is, and how far it has travelled to film someone smiling and holding a stopwatch.  It is slick, and clearly high budget, but tasteful along with it.

Now I know this sounds like a gruesomely biased gush of compliments towards ‘Inside the Human/My Body,’ but ultimately that is why I have written it.  There is not enough praise for what people do these days, and as I watched it I could bullet point the aspects of it I loved.  So I have done so.  There will be people who disagree with me.  My friend, over that glass of wine, failed to see the attraction of beautiful animation, and took objection with occasional shots of Dr M looking ponderously out of a window.  But I didn’t care, I bloody loved it.

A Hidden Legacy of Robert Hooke

Oxford is well known for its exceptional copyright Library – the Bodleian.  But some of the better kept secrets of the university are the individual college libraries, often the first port of call for fresher undergraduates, and the preferred final resting place of finalists.  Owing to the antiquity of many of the colleges, many of these libraries contain hidden, ancient bibliographic secrets.  This week, I was lucky enough to lay my hands on one such secret – a first edition of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia.

St Edmund Hall, dating back to the 13th Century, houses one of the first private college libraries in a small room above the chapel.  The construction of the old library (the new library occupies a Norman church in the grounds) was completed in 1685, and was used to hold the collection amassed by the then Principal, Dr Thomas Tullie.  It is a small and unassuming room, with enclosed bookcases lining the four walls of the main floor and an upper gallery.  Small windows with heavy yellow velvet curtains allowed the spring light to fill the room.  The collection is large and varied.  Among the many eclesiastical tomes are books on natural history, travel in the Empire, even an instructional guide to Witches.  Some books are chained.  But of greatest interest to our little group of palaeontologists, was a rare first edition folio of Robert Hooke’s study of tiny objects through the microscope – ‘Micrographia: or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses’.  Handling the book with white cotton gloves and weighted ‘snakes’ to hold down the pages, it was a magical experience, and one that I hope I can share with a few photographs, courtesy of my colleague Jack Matthews.

Robert Hooke's Micrographia, first edition

Micrographia was the first published book of the newly established Royal Society (founded just around the corner at Wadham College), appearing in 1665.  Robert Hooke, who studied at Wadham, developed his own compound microscopes with which to study microscopic objects, and he figured them in Micrographia as exquisite copperplate engravings, some as large fold-outs.  Micrographia is best known for studies of biological objects, and it was here that the word ‘cell’ was first used to describe living biological units, alongside intricate drawings of cork.  Pollen grains, seeds, and many insects are figured, and the large illustration of a flea has become and iconic image for science in this golden age.

Flea illustration from Hooke's Micrographia

But Hooke was a true polymath.  His work strayed well outside the biological.  Just like everyone does when given a microscope and some free time, he put everything he could find under there.  Textiles, the point of a needle, the edge of a blade, a lump of oolitic limestone, hair (complete with hair louse).  It is a wonder he didn’t draw his own fingernails, only it was probably too gross.  And his drawings weren’t just limited to things he saw down the microscope.  He included schematics of the microscope itself, light refraction and reflection in different systems, as well as a view of craters of the moon along with discussion of whether they were caused by impacts, or by volcanoes.  He came to the conclusion that they were volcanoes, but we can forgive him just this time.

The book itself is beautiful.  You can pick up a recent printing of it for barely anything these days, but there is something special about this fragile first edition.  Leather bound, with cord binding, and marks to show it had once been chained,  the pages gently discoloured, with mysterious bequeathements and catalogue numbers handrwitten – testament to its arrival in the very earliest days of the Library.

 

Record of Hooke’s Micrographia in the catalogue of St Edmund Hall’s Old Library

The library had many more secrets to give up – including a second edition print of Newton’s Principia, and an early geological and palaeontological tome by Corpus Christi geologist Dr William Buckland.

 

Illustration of a Crinoid fossil by William Buckland

It is wonderful to know that these treasures are there to be found on our own doorstep, and are being preserved just as they always have been.  Long may their presence be preserve to the deep scientific legacy of the University as a seat of learning.

Many thanks to Jack Matthews for the photographs, and to Vicky and Blanca for showing us the collections.  Martin Brasier, Alex Liu, Linhao Fang, Jack Matthews and Jonny Baker-Brian shared the magical experience.

 

Yours truly with Micrographia in the Old Library, St Edmund Hall