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Why the BBC’s Wonders of Life is not for me and why that doesn’t matter

February 4, 2013

It happened at about fifteen minutes past nine last night.  I realised that, sadly, I was not destined to enjoy Prof. Brian Cox’s Wonders of Life series.  I’m a life scientist. I’m unlikely to learn anything from it, but I should at least enjoy it.  But when Brian uttered the phrase “Nature abhors a gradient” in relation to electric charge I knew I wouldn’t see much more of it.  Beautifully shot, and with a very challenging topic (to bring the physics and chemistry of life to prime time TV), I know deep down it’s myself I’m letting down by switching off. But here’s the thing: I and several others took issue with the aforementioned soundbite. It just didn’t sound right from a biological perspective. So my simple response is this: Nature (in the sense of physical law) does indeed abhor a gradient, but life doesn’t. If fact if you’ve got a minute, life is life because of gradients! Pressure gradients allow you to breathe in and out, allow you to pump blood, concentration (or more accurately partial pressure) gradients allow oxygen to diffuse into the cells and ultimately the mitochondria where ATP is resynthesised using proton motive forces. These forces are produced by (you guessed it) pumps that set up charge gradients across the inner mitochondrial membrane.  These metabolic processes produce carbon dioxide which is released to the atmosphere using similar gradients. The condition of life without gradients is generally known as “death”.

So Wonders of Life is flawed and a failure? Absolutely not. I am one among many who lament the apparent dumbing down of science programmes on TV, most clearly demonstrated by Horizon’s tendency, until recently, to be 45 min of landscapes and classical music and 15 min of science content. Contrast this editorial policy with its earlier triumphs, most notably its Feynman interview. The printed media are even worse, of course, abusing genuinely interesting science stories left, right and centre.  But for television, I think times have changed. We have BBC4 (for the time being), with Jim Al-Khalili’s tremendous physics and chemistry short series, and we have Wonders. TV isn’t so dumb after all.

But there is one thing here I’ve missed out, and it is without doubt the most important thing: I’m not Wonders of Life’s target audience. I know what an action potential is.  I know about conservation of energy, I know about charge and mass balance. So apart from “doesn’t this show look nice” I’ve got nothing to gain from viewing it. But I forget that millions don’t know what I know, and Wonders is for them, not me. My “Wonders” happened the first time I saw a breath-by-breath profile of gas concentrations at the mouth, and I’m paid to keep seeing it. So consider this: 15 minutes after Top Gear, a modest but intelligent man patiently explained the physics and chemistry of an action potential to an audience of millions. For that reason, I will defend the BBC’s magnificent public service broadcasting until my dying breath, at which point I really will abhor a gradient.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. Barbara permalink
    February 5, 2013 7:17 pm

    Well said. In fact, this verges on moving. The UK is fortunate indeed to have many ‘modest but intelligent’ people to explain science to ordinary people.

    • Mark Burnley permalink
      February 7, 2013 8:59 pm

      Thanks for the comment, which I found quite moving!

  2. Dr Damian McSorley permalink
    February 6, 2013 12:32 pm

    So much for Prof BC’s ying & yang explanation, had you watched on you would have heard the Director request the crocodile sentence be reshot for alligator as they were in the Everglades, Brian looked miffed, nice to know he is Human after all, the show is excellent, the language of science though as somewhat bite sized probably not the words of Prof BC.

  3. Mark R permalink
    February 7, 2013 11:34 pm

    Being in the United States, I’ve had no way of seeing the program but I can guarantee that he meant “Nature abhors a gradient” in the same way as “Nature abhors a vacuum”, as in there will always be a drive towards equilibrium. It is in fact that drive that allows ATP production as the protons force their way through the ATP Synthase. I’m guessing that you aren’t a biochemist like Nick Lane who was a technical adviser on this, because that group of life scientists understand this stuff down to their bones.

    • February 8, 2013 9:01 am

      Hi Mark

      Thanks for the comment. My first paragraph was a deliberate straw man argument, since life exploits Nature’s abhorrence of gradients by setting them up everywhere, expending energy to achieve those gradients! Brian also explained his wording in replies on Twitter and we fundamentally agree on the science. Life is life because it is, by definition, a non-equilibrium state. An excellent review of these issues from my field (physiology) can be found here: http://jap.physiology.org/content/104/6/1844

      • Mark R permalink
        February 9, 2013 2:42 am

        Sorry about that. I’m a bit touchy since “Wonders of Life” is the first TV program to spend considerable time explaining how life manages its consumption of energy and why that points to a natural gradient producing phenomenon as the most likely birthplace of life yet. A few programs, particularly Attenborough’s First Life have spent up to a minute, but Cox really tried to hammer it home, even if he didn’t get into the nitty gritty of chemiosmosis.

        Ever since I read Life Ascending (and Power Sex Suicide) I’ve been trying to get scientifically minded laymen to drop the “small, warm pool”, the “primordial soup”, the Urey Miller experiment and even any RNA World proposed in an ocean in equilibrium. Alkaline hydrothermal vents make too good a natural bio-reactor to pass up, particularly in a Hadean ocean that had to be saturated in carbon dioxide.

        As for episode 4, I expect no less since the relation of size and energy consumption lines up perfectly with show being about how the laws of physics effect life now and evolution.

    • Ewan permalink
      February 11, 2013 10:45 pm

      Well quite, Mark R. I can understand professional biologists not learning much from “Wonders of Life” just as professional physicists won’t learn much from his previous programmes (though there’s no denying they’re very lovely to look at) but this seems an odd complaint not least because the first episode featured a quite nice and for prime-time-ish television, detailed 10-15 minute explanation of proton gradients and how they “fuel” living processes followed by a 5-10 minute discussion covering entropy, the “quality” of energy and why the 2nd law of thermodynamics doesn’t preclude life – in fact if asked to sum up that episode you’d be hard pressed not to say something like “It’s about energy gradients and how they relate to life” with much of the gist of the post’s first paragraph actually featuring, including mitochondria (it’s possible the blog author didn’t see episode one though).

      Still, it’s not the first time Cox has arguably sacrificed clarity for a more poetic turn of phrase and likely won’t be the last, he still gets actual science into his science programmes about as well as anyone on mainstream TV for my money (maybe excepting Jim Al-Khalili).

      Fair play though, the author doesn’t mix up not being in the target demographic with the show itself being deficient, which some would.

      • Mark R permalink
        February 11, 2013 11:16 pm

        Yes, I thought Al-Khalili’s “Chemistry: A Volatile History” (or as it was here in the U.S., “Unlocking the Universe”) was great, perhaps as good as James Burke’s other than having less time to cover the material than Burke was allowed. “The Day the Universe Changed” remains one of the greatest if not the greatest series on the history of science not in small part to having 10 episodes in which spread the material. Same of course goes for Cox’s series.

      • February 12, 2013 8:35 am

        Thanks for the comment. I agree my complaint is odd – was the only angle I thought I had to make the points of paragraphs 2 and 3. The critique was of myself and my own reaction to what Brian said, a reaction which was unfair (given that I had also seen ep 1!) The post is as much a comment on me getting hung up on technicalities as anything else.

      • Ewan permalink
        February 12, 2013 10:49 am

        Ah, I get where you’re coming from now. Yeah, it can be difficult sometimes. I work in IT for instance and if you let it more or less every depiction of computers on TV/film would drive you to distraction, fiction and non-fiction both (of course partly because of their ubiquity you don’t see many non-fiction programmes specifically about computers themselves nowadays, which is a bit of a shame in my opinion).

        One thing in his favour though is that Cox seems to be aware of the delicate balancing act between explanatory power and precision himself and can usually mount some defence of even his more poetic explanations, albeit afterwards, in other channels that many viewers won’t have access to.

  4. Paul permalink
    February 8, 2013 4:53 pm

    Please do watch episode 4 of wonders of life, feb 17th. All about size. It was made by a DPhil biologist from Oxford University….who knows what is talking about

    • February 8, 2013 5:01 pm

      Hi Paul

      Ah, scaling. A very interesting and still controversial area involving all sorts of wonderful stuff like fractal geometry. If he can explain the 0.75 scaling exponent in less than an hour he’s a better man than me!

      I certainly will watch. I hope the 1st para rant isn’t coming across as all anti-Brian Cox because the post is a lament at myself not the show.

      • Paul permalink
        February 16, 2013 8:48 pm

        we go into some detail over the 0.75 scalign exponent. There’s even a graph…

  5. Matthew Cobb permalink
    February 18, 2013 7:43 am

    I saw on Twitter you were happy about the graph, Mark! I think the series has been a remarkable success. It’s Brian’s programme, so he brings a physicist’s eye to it, which makes it truly novel, I think.

    • February 18, 2013 9:22 am

      Yes, I was. My post above was more directed at my initial reaction to episode 2, and me not appreciating the wood from the trees. The size episode was magnificent – congrats to you for that too. I’ve taught scaling in equine physiology classes when I was at Aberystwyth and have always been interested in it (if not research active). My exercise physiology background means I’m interested in scaling issues associated with exercise situations (British Cycling, for example, normalise power/mass ratios using surface area law scaling), whereas Weiber and Hoppeler (http://jeb.biologists.org/content/208/9/1635.long) suggest maximal metabolic rates scale with an exponent of ~0.87. Bewildering! For me the best bit about the metabolic rate section was that Brian didn’t try to force a conclusion, leaving it at “it could be X, Y or Z”.

  6. June 20, 2013 8:43 am

    He does go on to give a very clear explanation of how life utilises the energy from the sun to push against entropy locally and create gradients to maintain it’s environment etc….

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