Science Britannica - Learning Zone


Science Britannica - Learning Zone

Brian Cox explores the scientific method and 350 years of British science that has helped shape the world.


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Britain has produced far more than its fair share of trailblazers

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and innovators.

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Men and women who explained heredity by decoding DNA.

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Who provided the physics for every space programme ever conceived.

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And transformed communication for ever with the World Wide Web.

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I want to explore Britain's pivotal role in creating modern science.

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Reveal the characters that have made science what it is today.

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I'll be looking at the love-hate relationship

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that exists between British science and the British public.

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Where some of Britain's greatest discoveries came from.

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And asking whether we benefit more from science where we know

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what we're looking for, or whether the best ideas come...

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..out of the blue.

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The great British scientists who have transformed

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our thinking about the universe and our place within it, owe much

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of their success to one incredible idea - the scientific method.

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It's the bedrock of modern science, a way of making scientific ideas

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testable by comparing them with experimental results.

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One of its earliest practitioners was Sir Isaac Newton.

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This is Newton's death mask.

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It's a plaster cast of his face

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that would have been taken moments after he died.

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You think of Newton as almost an abstract set of theories.

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We think of his Universal Law Of Gravitation.

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But when you look at this you see a different Newton.

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You see Newton the man.

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Newton was obsessive, malicious and prone to outbursts of rage.

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But there was something

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quite extraordinary about the way that he worked.

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In an age when people still believed in magic,

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Newton devised a revolutionary theoretical framework

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with which to accurately investigate the nature of the world.

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Newton was born in 1642 into an England

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that was a country in transition, where science,

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where rational thought, where reason were beginning to flower.

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At the time,

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one of the great questions was about the nature of light.

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It was known that if you take a prism and shine sunlight through it,

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then it splits the sunlight into all the colours of the rainbow.

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The question was why?

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The common explanation for the appearance of the colours

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was that they were impurities added

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by the prism to the pure white light.

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Newton thought that the colours were already present in the white

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sunlight, but what set Newton apart was the fact that he devised

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and performed an experiment to test his hypothesis.

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He shone a white source of white light through a prism

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and, as expected, obtained a rainbow.

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But then he added a twist.

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And here's the genius. He introduced a slit into that rainbow beam,

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and that allowed him to isolate a particular colour of light

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and shine that into a second prism.

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Then, he looked for the deflection of the coloured light onto his wall.

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You can see that over there.

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Now, look what happens when I move the red light across the slit

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to the green light.

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On the wall what you see is green light into the prism

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equals green light out.

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Now, that implies that the colours themselves are pure,

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the prism is not adding or subtracting anything.

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That means that Newton's hypothesis was shown to be correct.

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The colours themselves are the basic building blocks of light

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and white light is made up of all those individual colours.

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That's genius.

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Newton was one of the first to interrogate nature

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using the principles of what we now call the scientific method.

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In other words, he observed the world,

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came up with theories to explain

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what he saw, then tested them with experiments to see if he was right.

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The power of this approach is that it aims

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to remove preconceived ideas

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and in doing so deliver a more

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accurate description of the natural world.

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And that's how Newton made incredible discoveries.

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Most of which he recorded in this priceless book.

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The Principia.

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It's in here that the first time that

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the Universal Law Of Gravitation is outlined.

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It's also his laws of motion

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that say how objects move around in the universe.

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It's pretty much everything you do in the first year

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of an undergraduate degree in physics, actually.

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On the face of it, it seems baffling that the scientific method

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took so long to emerge.

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After all, Newton lived just a few hundred years ago.

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Part of the problem is that our world

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is a complicated and baffling place...

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..but it's much easier to understand...

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..if you simplify it.

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It is possible to deduce the nature of light

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by investigating a rainbow,

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but by creating a controllable, repeatable experiment,

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Newton was able to support his hypothesis and then transfer

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that understanding to the much more complex world

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outside the laboratory.

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But powerful though the method is, a crucial factor in its success

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seems to be extraordinary individuals,

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people who appear to bring something extra to the process.

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This is the only picture of Henry Cavendish,

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and the reason is that he was very uncomfortable

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about sitting for portraits.

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In fact he never did it.

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So this was done mainly by an artist who glimpsed him over dinner

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and then sketched it out from memory,

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and it shows all the essential eccentric features of the man.

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He's wearing a hat which has been described as something

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from the previous century.

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And he always wore the same coat,

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and he liked it so much that every year when it wore out

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he had a new one exactly the same tailored.

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Cavendish's eccentricity was combined with a far more

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important trait for a scientist -

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an insatiable sense of curiosity.

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His main aim in life was to weigh, number and measure

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as many objects as he possibly could,

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and fortunately, like many scientists at the time,

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he was fabulously wealthy so he was able to

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indulge his curiosity with hundreds of extraordinary experiments.

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Like this one, which he first reported in 1766.

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It involves taking a metal...

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We'll take zinc...

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And then I'm going to pour

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concentrated hydrochloric acid onto the zinc.

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Now I'm going to bubble the gas that's produced into this soap

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solution, so these bubbles are now going to be filled with this gas,

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and very quickly and carefully I'm going to light the gas.

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EXPLOSION

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Now, Cavendish called that not, um...

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not inappropriately, I suppose, inflammable air.

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It's the gas that we now know as hydrogen.

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But Cavendish didn't stop there,

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he doggedly continued his quest to quantify hydrogen

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until he could describe every aspect of its existence.

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First he wanted to see how it would react with other things,

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like air.

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So, I'm going to repeat Cavendish's experiment again

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but this time with a vessel.

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What I'm going to do is fill it with hydrogen...

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So that's full of inflammable air, and I'm going to light the spark.

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EXPLOSION

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Now, what you saw there was a chemical reaction,

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the reaction of hydrogen with air,

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and if you look closely on the sides of the flask

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you'll see that it's... well, it's wet.

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That is water, and it's appeared as a result of the chemical reaction.

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In many respects, Cavendish embodies what science

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and what being a scientist is all about.

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His curiosity about the world drove him to design experiments

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in an effort to gain new insights into the way the world works.

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Now, Cavendish didn't really have any idea

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what happened in these chemical reactions.

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Indeed, his whole theoretical framework was nonsense

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to modern eyes. It was based on alchemy.

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EXPLOSION

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But because he was a great experimental scientist,

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his measurements were correct.

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So he managed to measure that water is made of

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two parts of hydrogen to one part of oxygen - H2O.

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Even though he didn't believe that water was made of anything at all.

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So that ability to get your theoretical picture,

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your ideas about the way that nature worked, completely wrong

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and yet make honest and precise measurements that stand the test

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of time and are correct, is the mark of a great experimental scientist.

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Cavendish has rightly gone down in history as one

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of this country's greatest scientists.

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But perhaps he should be remembered

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more for his association with another aspect of science,

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because he was instrumental in establishing this place,

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at 21 Albemarle Street, London.

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The Royal Institution.

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Where the vision was that the public could hear of the great

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discoveries of science.

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The Royal Institution became a platform for a new breed,

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the science personality.

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From Humphry Davy,

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the showman who famously danced with joy at his scientific discoveries...

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..to Michael Faraday,

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who began the tradition of giving the now famous Christmas Lectures.

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And the theatre is still used by scientists to engage

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with the public to this day.

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If now I remove the filter...

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EXPLOSION

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..something happens.

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Britain was amongst the first countries to understand that

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the pursuit of science is a vital part of nationhood.

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I'd like you to grab some of that hydrogen in the soap bubbles.

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'And that public engagement ensures science's bloodline.'

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-Ow!

-You all right?

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APPLAUSE

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In the early 19th century,

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as science rapidly transformed the way we understood the world,

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the public became increasingly desperate

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to hear of the latest advances.

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London's Royal Institution was a beacon of scientific learning.

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Lectures given by the top scientists of the day

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were sold out quickly and, in 1802,

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the hottest ticket in town offered the chance to see a real star,

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the Royal Institution's new professor of chemistry,

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Humphry Davy.

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As well as being a brilliant chemist,

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Davy was also a passionate communicator of science.

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Davy was a genuine star.

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The Royal Institution theatre was packed with the great

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and the good of the day.

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They had come to witness Davy's spectacular demonstrations.

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It had all the excitement of a magic show.

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But what Davy was doing was better than magic.

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It was chemistry.

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Davy was said to be something of a pyromaniac.

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He even burnt diamonds,

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to demonstrate that these most precious gems

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are made of carbon, the same stuff as coal.

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To Davy's audience this was captivating.

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Here, in front of their eyes,

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he was demonstrating one of the latest scientific theories.

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That everything is made up of a limited number of elements.

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Davy was famous for doing spectacular experiments,

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in particular for blowing things up.

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And this is one of the experiments. It's involving iodine,

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which is in fact one of the elements Davy is famous for discovering.

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So, Davy mixed iodine... with this liquid...

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..and what happens is

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a powerful contact explosive is made,

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and in one of his experiments he temporarily blinded himself

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by doing just what I'm doing now.

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Now what Davy wanted to do was to educate his audience.

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He wanted to show them that chemistry was exciting

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and counter intuitive,

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this idea that you can make compounds

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out of other substances

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that have extremely surprising and, in this case,

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spectacular properties.

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Nitrogen triiodide is a wonderful compound for demonstrating

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those ideas.

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It's basically a nitrogen atom with three iodines stuck to it.

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Now, nitrogen atoms want to interact,

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they want to bond together into the very stable nitrogen molecule,

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but the iodines keep them just far enough apart

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that they can't interact.

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All you have to do to change that and make them

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interact very quickly indeed, is to give them a little tickle.

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And it really is a very little tickle.

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EXPLOSION

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Wa-ha!

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Look at that!

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And that purple vapour there is iodine,

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so that was a very rapid chemical reaction.

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Nitrogen is produced and iodine is released.

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Yeah, I can see why Davy liked that.

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Davy was demonstrating

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that acquiring and applying scientific knowledge...

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..gives us power over nature.

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And his writings reveal how he believed

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the future of humankind lay in exploiting that power.

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"Science has bestowed upon him powers

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"which may be almost called creative,

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"which have enabled him to modify

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"and change the beings surrounding him,

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"and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power,

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"not simply as a scholar, passive and seeking only to understand

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"her operations,

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"but rather as a master, active with his own instruments."

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Here Davy is talking about being a creator.

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In the Biblical sense.

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Of controlling nature.

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Davy is claiming for science the territory previously occupied

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exclusively by religion.

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The seeds of public disquiet regarding scientists

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playing God were sown.

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And may have provided the inspiration for

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Mary Shelley's seminal novel, Frankenstein.

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The idea of scientists creating monsters...

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..was born.

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These potato plants growing in a field in Norfolk

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are considered by some people to be dangerous...

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..because they've been genetically modified.

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They are even referred to as Frankenfoods.

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They were created here at the Sainsbury laboratory,

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just outside Norwich, by plant geneticist Jonathan Jones.

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But he doesn't see these plants as monsters.

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You can put in genes that you could not put in by breeding, and so there

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are certain genes that do something really useful, such as make

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it much easier to control disease, much easier to control pests,

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and much easier to control weeds.

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It's remarkable that we have the ability to precisely manipulate

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and alter the genetic make-up of other living organisms,

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But it also means GM is at the heart of a long-standing debate

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about the possible dangers of scientific progress.

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A debate that started at the beginning of the genetic revolution

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with the discovery of DNA.

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It's here in Cambridge that Francis Crick and James Watson

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discovered the structure of DNA.

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The molecule that passes biological information

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from generation to generation.

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Crick and Watson's approach to finding that structure was to

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build physical models of the molecule.

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But it was proving unsuccessful.

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They desperately needed more and better data.

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And it came from a branch of physics called X-ray crystallography.

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This is a very famous photograph.

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It's called Photograph 51.

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It was actually taken by another scientist,

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Rosalind Franklin,

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and it's what's called an X-ray diffraction photograph.

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So Franklin shone X-rays through a sample of DNA molecules

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and the way that they scatter or diffract off the molecules,

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the pattern they leave on the photographic plate,

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allowed you to deduce the structure of those molecules.

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The key piece of evidence is the X.

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That allowed Franklin to suggest that the molecule must be helical,

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and in fact, must have that famous double helix.

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So, this photograph, along with Franklin's suggestions,

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her interpretation of the pattern,

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allowed Watson and Crick to go away and build their model of DNA.

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When they published the structure of DNA in 1953,

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Crick said, "We have discovered the secret of life."

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Crick was right.

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The discovery of the structure of DNA was one of the great moments

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in modern scientific history.

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By the early 1970s, the genetic code had been translated, making it

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possible to identify individual genes and study their function.

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We now had access to the workings of life itself.

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But the genetic revolution was accompanied by a widespread

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feeling that science had gone too far,

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and to this day,

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scientists haven't always been able to control the debate.

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And nowhere is that clearer

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than in the controversy over GM crops in this country.

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To many scientists, GM crops hold the key to more efficient,

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more environmentally-friendly agriculture,

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but they've been unable to persuade a sceptical public

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of the safety of the technique.

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Instead, public opinion has been led by a vigorous anti-GM campaign

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that started in the 1990s

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and which has left many people dead-set against GM crops.

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There are fears that the crops may contaminate the environment,

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or that they may be unsafe to eat,

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and underlying it all is a feeling that there's something

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fundamentally wrong about meddling with life at such a basic level.

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Yeah, what do you think of this...this label, Frankenfood?

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The suggestion is that because we can now put genes from an animal,

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let say a cow or a jellyfish or whatever it is,

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into a plant, there's something

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unnatural and therefore potentially dangerous about that procedure.

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Well, the word "unnatural" is a real weasel word.

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I mean, it's unnatural to treat your kids with antibiotics, isn't it?

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You ought to let them die. I know which I'd prefer.

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Agriculture is fundamentally unnatural,

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whether it's organic agriculture or hi tech agriculture,

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conventional agriculture. We are eliminating all the trees

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and wildlife that used to be there and planting the plants that we

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want to have there to provide the stuff that we eat.

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So, the thing we have to ask ourselves is, what's the least

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bad way of protecting our crops from disease

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and pests, for reducing the losses caused by weeds?

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As a scientist working on GM crops, you'd expect Jonathan

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to be a powerful advocate for the technology,

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but his view is also backed up

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by a vast body of research that shows it to be safe and effective.

0:25:490:25:55

So if GM crops are to have a future in this country

0:25:570:26:00

the scientists need to find a better way to persuade the public

0:26:000:26:03

to share their confidence.

0:26:030:26:04

Scientists are often baffled by negative public reaction

0:26:120:26:15

to a new scientific discovery.

0:26:150:26:18

They sometimes fail to appreciate that the public

0:26:180:26:22

genuinely fear that science is dangerous.

0:26:220:26:24

The way to combat that fear

0:26:260:26:28

is through effective public engagement.

0:26:280:26:31

And perhaps surprisingly, one of the best examples of that

0:26:360:26:40

comes from over 200 years ago

0:26:400:26:42

and a scientist who at the time was perceived to be a dangerous villain.

0:26:420:26:47

In the lobby of the Royal College of Surgeons stands a statue

0:26:550:26:59

of John Hunter, a Scotsman and one of the fathers of modern medicine.

0:26:590:27:04

In the 1780s he started performing surgical operations

0:27:050:27:10

that were decades ahead of their time.

0:27:100:27:12

This is the original documentation of the case of John Burley.

0:27:160:27:22

It's a really excellent example of Hunter's skill as a surgeon.

0:27:220:27:25

It's a picture of a tumour, so that's...

0:27:270:27:29

what happens when you leave a tumour for too long.

0:27:290:27:33

It says here it was an "increase to the size of a common head...

0:27:340:27:38

"..attended with no other inconvenience

0:27:400:27:42

"than its size and weight."

0:27:420:27:44

And then, the second drawing here is after the operation,

0:27:440:27:49

and it's completely cured, essentially.

0:27:490:27:52

But for all his medical brilliance, Hunter was treated

0:27:550:27:59

with suspicion and even horror,

0:27:590:28:02

because to develop his remarkable surgical skills

0:28:020:28:05

he had practised on human corpses.

0:28:050:28:08

In the 18th century anatomists were

0:28:140:28:17

legally entitled to corpses fresh from the gallows,

0:28:170:28:21

but even so, demand comfortably exceeded supply,

0:28:210:28:24

and so they had to look to

0:28:240:28:27

another source of bodies for experimentation.

0:28:270:28:29

And the easiest place to get hold of fresh corpses

0:28:330:28:37

was to dig them up from a graveyard.

0:28:370:28:39

Anatomists were prepared to pay large amounts of money for corpses,

0:28:450:28:48

and that meant that there were hundreds of grave-robbers

0:28:480:28:52

operating in gangs in London

0:28:520:28:53

who could dig up to ten bodies per night,

0:28:530:28:57

and the best customer of all was John Hunter.

0:28:570:29:00

On one occasion he was even arrested

0:29:030:29:05

for giving a hand to a gang of grave-robbers.

0:29:050:29:08

And these exploits made Hunter

0:29:100:29:12

incredibly unpopular with the man on the street.

0:29:120:29:15

Hunter revolutionised surgical techniques for the benefit

0:29:160:29:19

of everybody, but I suppose, not unsurprisingly,

0:29:190:29:22

his work was controversial in public.

0:29:220:29:25

So, even though he was working in the 18th century, I suppose

0:29:250:29:29

you could say, in the modern vernacular, he had a PR problem.

0:29:290:29:32

Hunter was so afraid of the adverse public reaction

0:29:380:29:41

to his work that he was actually in fear of his life.

0:29:410:29:45

But he reasoned that fear was born of ignorance,

0:29:450:29:49

and therefore education was the answer.

0:29:490:29:52

And, so, he opened this museum to display his work to the public.

0:29:520:29:56

His collection is still on display today

0:29:590:30:01

in the Royal College of Surgeons.

0:30:010:30:04

In these exhibits, people could see how Hunter was using corpses

0:30:040:30:08

to learn about anatomy and physiology.

0:30:080:30:11

You could even see his pioneering attempts at opening

0:30:130:30:15

new fields of medicine.

0:30:150:30:17

These chicken heads were the recipients of some

0:30:200:30:23

of the first transplant operations.

0:30:230:30:25

Although some of these exhibits are gruesome, they show how

0:30:290:30:33

Hunter was using his knowledge to move medicine out of the Dark Ages.

0:30:330:30:37

This exhibit marks the beginning of the end

0:30:450:30:48

of the age of barbaric surgery.

0:30:480:30:50

What you see here is an aneurysm in the popliteal artery,

0:30:500:30:55

that's the artery that goes behind the knee.

0:30:550:30:57

It's essentially a sack of blood as the artery swells up.

0:30:570:31:02

If this goes untreated, then what would happen

0:31:020:31:05

is that sack will eventually burst and the patient will bleed to death.

0:31:050:31:09

Now, the treatment at the time for that was amputation.

0:31:090:31:14

What Hunter noticed, through his work on animal physiology

0:31:140:31:19

and, indeed, on the dissection of human specimens,

0:31:190:31:22

was that there are very many other arteries in the leg

0:31:220:31:25

and he reasoned that if he tied off the affected artery,

0:31:250:31:29

ligated it, then the blood supply to the aneurysm would be cut off,

0:31:290:31:34

and he hoped that the other arteries

0:31:340:31:37

would expand to allow blood to flow down the leg.

0:31:370:31:40

As well as revolutionising medicine,

0:31:450:31:46

John Hunter's approach was a model for public engagement.

0:31:460:31:50

By inviting people into his museum, he was able to address

0:31:520:31:56

and confront the moral objections to his work.

0:31:560:31:59

Medicine is one of the most crowd-pleasing

0:32:100:32:12

branches of science because of the benefits it brings.

0:32:120:32:16

It improves all our lives.

0:32:160:32:18

But what about the rest of science?

0:32:200:32:23

What should be the driver of scientific research?

0:32:230:32:26

Throughout history,

0:32:350:32:36

Britain's scientists have often been motivated by one thing.

0:32:360:32:40

Indeed, some argue it's perhaps THE greatest driver

0:32:400:32:44

of scientific discovery.

0:32:440:32:46

The simple aspiration to understand how nature works.

0:32:460:32:51

In its purist form, it is just that -

0:32:530:32:56

the desire to understand, without any regard at all for how

0:32:560:33:00

useful the discoveries may be, or how profitable.

0:33:000:33:03

And this approach to science

0:33:030:33:05

is called "curiosity-driven research",

0:33:050:33:08

or sometimes "blue skies" research.

0:33:080:33:10

And one of the best examples of the practitioner

0:33:150:33:19

of this pure form of discovery is John Tyndall.

0:33:190:33:22

He was born in 1820.

0:33:290:33:31

As well as being a scholar, Tyndall was also something of a romantic.

0:33:310:33:36

He was transfixed by the Alpine sunsets

0:33:380:33:41

and their magnificent range of colours.

0:33:410:33:43

So he set out to understand their origin and, in turn,

0:33:430:33:47

inspired generations of scientists to pursue fundamental research.

0:33:470:33:52

This is the experiment he hoped would provide answers.

0:33:540:33:58

It's basically a tank full of water.

0:34:000:34:02

Into that water, I'm just going to put a few drops of milk.

0:34:020:34:07

Now, that basically just introduces some particles into the liquid.

0:34:090:34:13

Now, what Tyndall then did was shine a white light into the tank.

0:34:170:34:24

And you immediately see that the tank lights up

0:34:240:34:29

with different colours. Tyndall loved this.

0:34:290:34:32

In his typically poetically fashion he described it as "sky in a box".

0:34:320:34:36

You see, at this side of the tank, the solution is blue.

0:34:360:34:42

As you move through the tank, it becomes more and more yellow.

0:34:420:34:47

Actually, to us, this end,

0:34:470:34:49

it's even beginning to become orange.

0:34:490:34:51

So, this is the Alpine sky in a box.

0:34:510:34:55

And Tyndall had an explanation for why this happens.

0:34:550:34:59

He knew that white light is made of all the colours of the rainbow.

0:35:020:35:06

And he proposed that blue light has a higher probability

0:35:060:35:11

of bouncing around and scattering

0:35:110:35:13

off the particles of milk in the water.

0:35:130:35:15

Now we know this is because blue light has a shorter wavelength

0:35:150:35:20

than the other colours of visible light.

0:35:200:35:23

So, that means that the blue light would be the first

0:35:230:35:27

to scatter and get dispersed throughout the liquid.

0:35:270:35:30

And, so, the first piece of the tank will look blue.

0:35:300:35:34

And this is why the sky's blue.

0:35:360:35:39

Because blue light from the sun has a higher

0:35:390:35:42

probability of scattering in the atmosphere.

0:35:420:35:45

But the tank also explains the sunset colours.

0:35:490:35:52

As the light penetrates deeper into the milky water,

0:35:540:35:57

eventually all of the shorter wavelengths of blue light

0:35:570:36:00

are scattered away leaving just the longer wavelengths

0:36:000:36:03

of orange and red.

0:36:030:36:05

So the water looks progressively more orange,

0:36:050:36:08

and, if the tank were long enough, red.

0:36:080:36:11

So, too, the sky.

0:36:130:36:15

As the sun gets lower, its light has to travel through more atmosphere,

0:36:150:36:18

so the shorter blue wavelengths scatter away completely,

0:36:180:36:22

leaving just the orange and red light,

0:36:220:36:25

making the sky appear red at sunset.

0:36:250:36:28

Today, we know that light scatters primarily off the air molecules

0:36:290:36:33

themselves, rather than dust particles,

0:36:330:36:36

so Tyndall's explanation was right in principle, but wrong in detail.

0:36:360:36:41

But it didn't matter.

0:36:420:36:44

In fact, it was the misinterpretation of his results

0:36:440:36:46

that led Tyndall to make his most important discovery of all.

0:36:460:36:50

Being a curious scientist, Tyndall decided to proceed

0:36:500:36:54

and carry out more experiments. So he took a box of air...

0:36:540:36:59

..filled with dust.

0:37:000:37:02

And he let the dust settle for days and days and days.

0:37:050:37:09

He called this sample, with all the dust settled out,

0:37:090:37:13

"optically pure air".

0:37:130:37:14

And then he started putting things in the box to see what happened.

0:37:140:37:18

So he put some meat in it. And he put some fish in it.

0:37:180:37:21

And he even put samples of his own urine in it.

0:37:210:37:25

And what he noticed was something very interesting.

0:37:250:37:28

The meat didn't decay. The fish didn't decay.

0:37:280:37:31

And his urine didn't cloud.

0:37:310:37:33

He said that it remained as clear as a fresh sherry.

0:37:330:37:38

He hadn't just created dust-free or optically pure air.

0:37:390:37:43

Without realising it, Tyndall had sterilised it.

0:37:430:37:46

He let all of the bacteria settle out

0:37:460:37:49

and stick to the bottom of the box. The air inside was now germ-free.

0:37:490:37:54

It may not have been his original intention, but Tyndall had provided

0:37:560:38:00

decisive evidence for a controversial theory of the time.

0:38:000:38:04

And that is that decay and disease are caused by microbes in the air.

0:38:040:38:10

John Tyndall was a man who followed his curiosity for its own sake,

0:38:140:38:20

not for where it might lead.

0:38:200:38:21

He didn't set out to discover the origins of airborne disease

0:38:230:38:26

when he began exploring the colours of the sky,

0:38:260:38:29

but that's exactly what he did.

0:38:290:38:31

It's appropriate, then, that curiosity-led investigation

0:38:320:38:36

like this is often called "blue skies research".

0:38:360:38:40

Another way to generate new knowledge is applied science.

0:38:480:38:52

A more practical approach to research,

0:38:520:38:54

and an area where Britain has always excelled.

0:38:540:38:57

The British pharmaceutical industry

0:39:020:39:04

is at the forefront of drug discovery and manufacture.

0:39:040:39:08

They have pioneered antibiotic medicine,

0:39:120:39:15

enabled mass vaccination,

0:39:150:39:18

and made previously fatal conditions treatable.

0:39:180:39:21

It's part of an industry worth an estimated £200 billion a year.

0:39:300:39:35

And it's not a business that hangs around waiting for happy accidents.

0:39:350:39:39

Drug discovery uses a targeted approach to scientific research.

0:39:410:39:45

What I'm amazed about is the level of work, compared to a university.

0:39:460:39:51

There's so many people.

0:39:510:39:53

GlaxoSmithKline is behind many of the pharmaceuticals

0:39:540:39:57

that are commonplace in today's market place, from painkillers,

0:39:570:40:01

to asthma inhalers.

0:40:010:40:03

One of GSK's biggest research and development hubs is here

0:40:040:40:07

on home soil, 20 miles north of London, in Stevenage.

0:40:070:40:12

This lab in general, this is the early discovery...

0:40:120:40:16

'Dr Tom Webb joined GSK three years ago

0:40:170:40:21

'and has been working to develop new drugs ever since.'

0:40:210:40:24

How do you do it?

0:40:280:40:29

If somebody comes along from management to GSK

0:40:290:40:32

and says, "Right, we need a drug to treat...

0:40:320:40:35

"..arthritis, a new one."

0:40:350:40:37

-What do you do? Do you say, "OK."

-Run around screaming!

0:40:370:40:42

"Here's a test tube."

0:40:420:40:43

It's an incredibly complex process.

0:40:450:40:47

Drugs discovery takes ten to 15 years.

0:40:470:40:49

It starts off with a target in mind for treating that disease.

0:40:490:40:54

And then we start off with huge libraries.

0:40:540:40:56

These might be libraries of small molecules,

0:40:560:40:58

so containing tens of thousands of different chemical compounds.

0:40:580:41:01

And we're starting with all of these potential medicines,

0:41:010:41:04

and really whittling them down to one candidate, one medicine.

0:41:040:41:09

So, that sounds a very...

0:41:090:41:11

very targeted approach, really.

0:41:110:41:13

You have a specific example, a specific challenge in mind.

0:41:130:41:17

It's a beautiful example, isn't it, of almost an industrial-scale search

0:41:170:41:21

for useful antibodies, or useful drugs.

0:41:210:41:25

Yeah, and we're getting better and better at doing it,

0:41:250:41:28

as we gain more experience.

0:41:280:41:29

The screenings done at pharmaceutical companies such as GSK

0:41:310:41:34

allow researchers to test millions of different compounds,

0:41:340:41:37

antibodies or genes to see

0:41:370:41:39

if they'll work as part of a new drug or treatment.

0:41:390:41:43

The scale of the work means the chance of success over

0:41:440:41:48

conventional research methods is dramatically increased.

0:41:480:41:51

If we were just playing around in the lab,

0:41:520:41:54

I think the likelihood of us stumbling across a discovery

0:41:540:41:57

that enables us to make a medicine is probably unlikely.

0:41:570:42:00

So we have to commit to making medicines for patients,

0:42:000:42:03

and that doesn't happen by complete serendipity.

0:42:030:42:06

The pharmaceutical industry in Britain

0:42:120:42:15

is a triumph for home-grown science,

0:42:150:42:17

providing cures for previously untreatable diseases,

0:42:170:42:21

and changing the lives of millions of patients around the world.

0:42:210:42:25

This is an impressive place.

0:42:260:42:28

It's science on an industrial scale, and you see these vast

0:42:280:42:31

research labs, and that's what you need

0:42:310:42:34

because you have to do hundreds of thousands,

0:42:340:42:36

or even millions of individual experiments

0:42:360:42:39

to bring a new drug to market.

0:42:390:42:42

It also costs billions of pounds.

0:42:420:42:44

So this is targeted science.

0:42:440:42:46

There are particular problems that need solutions.

0:42:460:42:50

There's a particular disease that needs treating.

0:42:500:42:52

And I suppose for medical science as a whole,

0:42:520:42:54

you can state its goal in one simple sentence -

0:42:540:42:57

it's to make people better.

0:42:570:42:59

It's undeniable that targeted research delivers.

0:43:020:43:06

But, and it's a big but, there is a catch, and it's this.

0:43:060:43:11

In any commercial environment,

0:43:110:43:13

specific targeting brings with it a possibility

0:43:130:43:16

that during the process of discovery, any kind of result that

0:43:160:43:20

doesn't positively enhance the chance of success may be ignored.

0:43:200:43:25

Now, on the face of it, that seems fair enough,

0:43:290:43:32

but in fact, it's extremely worrying indeed.

0:43:320:43:36

See, if you look through the history of science,

0:43:360:43:39

through any scientific journal, then you'll find that the negative

0:43:390:43:43

results are recorded, as well as the positive ones.

0:43:430:43:47

And that's important because all knowledge is valuable.

0:43:470:43:51

But in a commercial setting, where you're asking a question -

0:43:520:43:56

can we find a drug to cure this particular disease, to do this

0:43:560:44:00

particular job - then the temptation is to ignore the negative results.

0:44:000:44:05

This is almost anti-knowledge.

0:44:050:44:08

It goes against the ethos of science and more importantly, it

0:44:080:44:13

closes the doors to some magnificent serendipitous discoveries.

0:44:130:44:18

This is a self-portrait of a 14-year-old boy.

0:44:370:44:40

He took it in 1852, which is

0:44:400:44:44

only just over ten years after the invention of photography.

0:44:440:44:49

So, given the quality of this photograph,

0:44:490:44:52

then that makes him a very precocious individual indeed.

0:44:520:44:56

His name is William Perkin.

0:44:580:45:00

When he started his career, Perkin was living in exciting times.

0:45:030:45:09

This was the age of Empire, a world where, in time,

0:45:090:45:13

the sun really would never set on British Imperial assets.

0:45:130:45:17

But as the Empire expanded,

0:45:170:45:20

so too did the risk to Britain's colonialists,

0:45:200:45:23

as they were exposed to deadly tropical diseases, such as malaria.

0:45:230:45:27

Fortunately, there was relief available from malaria,

0:45:270:45:30

in the form of a drug called quinine.

0:45:300:45:34

But it could only be extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree,

0:45:340:45:37

which grows on the remote eastern slopes of the Andes,

0:45:370:45:41

making it expensive and difficult to get hold of.

0:45:410:45:45

What was needed was a more reliable and cheaper source.

0:45:450:45:49

So the young William Perkin was set to work, to find

0:45:590:46:02

a way to make synthetic quinine in the lab.

0:46:020:46:05

This is a mock-up of what Perkin did.

0:46:120:46:14

I'm not using the real chemicals because they're dangerous,

0:46:140:46:18

but the idea is simple and the logic is impeccable.

0:46:180:46:21

This is quinine, the white powder that Perkin wanted to make.

0:46:210:46:25

He knew that this was made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen

0:46:250:46:29

and hydrogen and he also knew the proportions, so he reasoned like

0:46:290:46:34

this - why don't I take something simpler, an amine, actually an amine

0:46:340:46:39

called aniline, which is a ring of carbons with a nitrogen

0:46:390:46:43

and a couple of hydrogens stuck on the end.

0:46:430:46:47

So it's everything you need, apart from the oxygen.

0:46:470:46:50

He then took this, potassium dichromate,

0:46:500:46:54

which is a strong oxidising agent.

0:46:540:46:57

And today we know that this rips electrons off things,

0:46:570:47:00

but Perkin thought that it added oxygen.

0:47:000:47:04

And so, you see what he wanted to do?

0:47:040:47:07

He wanted to take a simple compound, with carbons, nitrogens

0:47:070:47:10

and hydrogens, mix them

0:47:100:47:12

together with something that struck oxygens on, and produce quinine.

0:47:120:47:17

So, he just dissolved his potassium dichromate in solution,

0:47:200:47:25

dissolved some amines in dilute sulphuric acid,

0:47:250:47:29

turned the tap, mixed them together,

0:47:290:47:34

heated them up and waited.

0:47:340:47:37

At the end of the experiment, what he got was a muddy black mess.

0:47:450:47:50

In other words, apparently, the experiment had failed.

0:47:500:47:53

Had Perkin been working in a modern commercial environment,

0:47:550:47:58

he might well have stopped here.

0:47:580:48:00

But what happened next is a prime example of why the enquiring mind

0:48:000:48:04

must be given the freedom to explore and knowledge should never be lost.

0:48:040:48:09

What he noticed is that the residue

0:48:110:48:14

seemed to colour whatever it touched purple.

0:48:140:48:19

So being a good experimental chemist, he started trying to

0:48:190:48:22

purify it, to investigate it, to understand its properties.

0:48:220:48:26

So he mixed it with petroleum and then he mixed it with ethanol.

0:48:260:48:32

And if I just dab a bit of cloth into this...

0:48:360:48:40

..then it dyes it bright purple.

0:48:440:48:47

So Perkin had discovered a dye, which he called mauveine.

0:48:470:48:52

Perkin's dye was far superior to anything created by nature

0:48:560:49:01

and one that could be mass produced at a fraction of the cost.

0:49:010:49:05

It quickly gained popularity after Queen Victoria appeared at her

0:49:050:49:08

daughter's wedding in a silk gown dyed with mauveine.

0:49:080:49:12

Thanks to Perkin,

0:49:130:49:15

the 1890s are now affectionately known as the mauve decade.

0:49:150:49:19

Perkin helped usher in the dawn of organic chemistry,

0:49:240:49:27

a new age of products, from plastics to perfumes and medicines.

0:49:270:49:32

The interesting thing about William Perkin is that

0:49:340:49:37

if he'd set out with the aim of discovering a new purple dye,

0:49:370:49:41

then he probably would have failed,

0:49:410:49:44

and if he hadn't been a curious scientist,

0:49:440:49:47

wanting to understand why his experiment didn't seem to work,

0:49:470:49:51

Then again, he would've probably failed to discover that dye.

0:49:510:49:55

Perkins's story is a warning of the potential perils of limiting science

0:49:570:50:02

to targeted research, that is research with an end result in mind.

0:50:020:50:07

Had he been working in a commercial environment, it's likely that,

0:50:070:50:11

because the purple dye wasn't quining, his further

0:50:110:50:14

investigations would've been thought to be an expensive waste of time.

0:50:140:50:18

So though targeted research seems like an efficient way to do

0:50:200:50:23

science, it brings with it the very real chance that we

0:50:230:50:27

miss out on some unexpected discovery.

0:50:270:50:30

By providing the minds and the methods, Britain has arguably

0:50:350:50:40

had a greater influence than any other nation on how science is done.

0:50:400:50:45

Here at CERN,

0:50:470:50:48

the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, can be

0:50:480:50:52

found perhaps the best example of Britain's scientific legacy.

0:50:520:50:56

Below the ground here, around 100 metres below the ground,

0:51:050:51:09

is the Large Hadron Collider. It's 27km in circumference.

0:51:090:51:14

Its job is to accelerate protons to 99.9999% the speed of light, at

0:51:140:51:20

which speed they circumnavigate this 27km 11,000 times a second.

0:51:200:51:25

The protons are collided together, and each of those collisions,

0:51:250:51:28

the conditions that were present, less than a billionth of a second

0:51:280:51:32

after the universe began, are recreated.

0:51:320:51:35

By making particles collide

0:51:370:51:39

and studying the products of those collisions, scientists can glean

0:51:390:51:43

a new understanding of the structure of the subatomic world,

0:51:430:51:47

and the laws of nature that rule it.

0:51:470:51:49

The collider was designed to explore some of the biggest mysteries in the

0:51:530:51:57

universe, including what happened immediately after the Big Bang.

0:51:570:52:01

The sheer audacity of it,

0:52:030:52:04

that human beings might be able to reach back 13.7 billion years

0:52:040:52:09

to discover how the universe evolved, is breathtaking.

0:52:090:52:14

And yet, that's what's being done here...on an epic scale.

0:52:160:52:21

The Large Hadron Collider is the most complicated scientific

0:52:260:52:30

experiment ever built.

0:52:300:52:31

But it's still just an experiment like any other.

0:52:340:52:38

At its heart, there is repeatable process.

0:52:410:52:45

Teams of people dedicated to making detailed measurements,

0:52:450:52:49

and comparing those measurements to theoretical predictions.

0:52:490:52:53

These are simple principles, yet they hold great power.

0:52:530:52:58

Half of the world's particle physicists, 10,000 of them,

0:53:040:53:08

are gathered here because of the tantalising prospects of what

0:53:080:53:12

they might discover.

0:53:120:53:14

CERN is now the place to be, because everything is happening here.

0:53:150:53:19

New physics, new stuff. Super-symmetry, dark matter.

0:53:190:53:23

We're solving problems which are fundamental to all people.

0:53:230:53:28

We don't really care where anyone comes from,

0:53:280:53:30

we all want the same thing.

0:53:300:53:32

And being part of this is just brilliant.

0:53:320:53:37

What do I do? I'm going to have to think about that for a second.

0:53:370:53:41

HE LAUGHS

0:53:410:53:44

But while one or two of them can't remember what they're supposed to be

0:53:440:53:47

doing individually, as a group, the scientists here have made

0:53:470:53:50

one of the most important discoveries in physics.

0:53:500:53:53

BBC NEWS THEME TUNE

0:53:550:53:58

Researchers at the Centre for Nuclear Research near Geneva...

0:53:580:54:01

..have just announced in the last few minutes that Higgs boson,

0:54:010:54:04

the so-called God Particle, has been glimpsed.

0:54:040:54:08

In July 2012, it was confirmed that a new particle,

0:54:080:54:12

the Higgs boson, had been detected.

0:54:120:54:14

This elusive piece of the subatomic jigsaw is

0:54:140:54:17

responsible for the masses of the building blocks of the universe.

0:54:170:54:22

The particle is named after British physicist Peter Higgs,

0:54:220:54:26

who worked on the theory some 50 years earlier.

0:54:260:54:29

The discovery is a vindication of the ideas behind CERN.

0:54:330:54:37

But the reason that we can be confident in the discovery is

0:54:370:54:42

the painstaking effort that has gone into the design of the experiments.

0:54:420:54:46

Even to the point of funding two separate teams of researchers,

0:54:490:54:53

analysing exactly the same things.

0:54:530:54:56

A cross check so vital that the teams are not allowed to

0:54:560:55:00

discuss their work, even with each other.

0:55:000:55:02

My institute in Manchester is part of an experiment

0:55:050:55:08

a few hundred metres in that direction called Atlas.

0:55:080:55:11

It's a collaboration of over 160 institutes from 38 countries,

0:55:110:55:17

and together we designed, we built and we operate that experiment.

0:55:170:55:23

Now, if you go several miles, actually, in that direction,

0:55:230:55:26

over to the other side of the LAC, there's another collaboration.

0:55:260:55:30

It's called CMS. It's run by different physicists.

0:55:300:55:34

It was designed, built

0:55:340:55:35

and it is operated completely independently from Atlas.

0:55:350:55:39

But they're both designed, essentially, to do the same

0:55:390:55:43

thing, which is to search for new physics, like the Higgs boson.

0:55:430:55:47

And because these two groups found exactly the same thing,

0:55:490:55:53

everyone could be confident that the Higgs really had been discovered.

0:55:530:55:57

All the basic principles of science are put into action

0:56:000:56:04

here at CERN, and it's this, the scientific method, that gives CERN

0:56:040:56:10

and all scientific investigation its power and validity.

0:56:100:56:14

Science is one of this country's success stories.

0:56:190:56:22

Many of its important characters are British,

0:56:240:56:28

and Britain has always been a place where crucial discoveries are made.

0:56:280:56:32

Newton's theory of gravity...

0:56:340:56:36

The form of the DNA molecule...

0:56:370:56:40

All courtesy of a few small islands in the North Atlantic.

0:56:400:56:44

But these great discoveries haven't happened by accident.

0:56:470:56:52

The existence of organisations like the Royal Institution

0:56:540:56:58

demonstrates that here is a place where inquiring minds are valued.

0:56:580:57:02

And the apparently unknowable is thought worthy of investigation.

0:57:040:57:08

This is also a nation that celebrates curiosity,

0:57:120:57:16

and combining this curiosity with a powerful method to

0:57:160:57:20

investigate nature

0:57:200:57:22

has always ensured that British science is among the world's best.

0:57:220:57:26

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