“The Secret of Life”

On Jan. 4, 2003, Sunday, Channel 13 (PBS, WNET) showed Episode One of “DNA” , what looks like a fascinating 5-part documentary on not just DNA but the scientists behind DNA. Episode One, “The Secret of Life” is an appropriate beginning – the discovery of DNA as the genetic structure.

Actor Jeff Goldblum as the narrator was good (he has an appropriate voice for science documentaries, although there was a documentary on dinosaurs where his pronunciation of “dinosaurs” was grating on the ears). The story was well-told as it unfolded, with the cast of odd characters: James Watson, the sort-of winsome American who clearly enjoys his part in a great discovery and re-telling it so many times; Francis Crick, the Englishman currently in California as a relative recluse – such that the documentarian could not even reach him – and no longer in the gene business; plus Maurice Wilkins, the self-effacing Englishman, who clashed with Rosalind Franklin – the sole woman in the effort and of whom the men were scared (was it her own sharp personality that caused the tensions, or were the men being – well – silly men for alienating her, or both?). Regrettably, Franklin died prematurely, and the Nobel Prize people couldn’t honor her because they don’t give post-humous awards. Humph.

There was a good portrayal of how Watson and Crick made the unlikeliest pair to discover DNA, since they spent much of their theorizing time in a pub and because they easily could be seen as picking off the hard work of Wilkins and Franklin. Plus, there were the memories of Linus Pauling, the Nobel Prize American scientist who fell short of figuring out the double helix of DNA (his son’s reflection of the times was amusing – a scientist himself, Peter Pauling, hung out with Watson and Crick back in the day and talked about how his “Pa” got the wrong structure without the right research, a development that relieved Watson. It was really heart-warming how a Nobel laureate is still “Pa” to a man in his 70’s).

These aren’t just geeky scientists – they were ultimately human with human failings and attitudes. Episode 1 also had incredibly stunning computer graphics portraying DNA in operation (i.e., how DNA is the software for the proteins that become hair, claws, etc). We don’t need the old chemistry set tinker toys anymore to imagine DNA; the description of DNA as a component of the “factory” of life becomes amazingly real with these graphics.

If Episode 1 is any indication, I think I’ll try to catch Episode 2, which will look into genetic engineering, next Sunday. I like a nicely done science documentary that’s not boring.

Coincidentally, I’m in the middle of reading “Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters,” by Matt Ridley (Hardcover 2000; Paperback 1999). I like the (short) chapters and writing style so far (witty and informative). Good science writing is good reading when it’s short, descriptive and animated (like the good articles in the Science Times section of the NY Times). Slight quibble – Ridley’s book was originally published in the UK, and Ridley’s British and had worked as science editor in the U.S., so there’s a very British tone with lots of U.S. references and a mostly American context. I sort of wonder who’s the target audience – the Americans who don’t quite understand the British or the British who don’t quite understand Americans? – but it’s such a minor quibble compared to the strong read so far (the headline on the top of the book: “National Bestseller/Editor’s Choice, New York Times Book Review,” just to remind you that it’s a good book).

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