Genius of Britain (2010) s01e01 Episode Script

Episode 1

STEPHEN HAWKING: Let me take you back in time to a place without the wonders of the modern world.
Five hundred years ago, the Earth was dark, a place of mystery and superstition.
But then science changed everything.
TRAFFIC SCREECHES This series will tell the stories of the British scientists who changed the world.
We have asked some of the great scientists and inventors of today to tell us about their heroes.
Now let's start her up.
It opened up a whole new world of the very small.
Heat was Thomson's big idea.
For me, Hunter is a true hero.
Exciting possibilities.
He made science in Britain really matter.
Britain has a tremendous scientific legacy that most people know little about.
We want to set the record straight and put science back on the map.
The world is full of wonders, but they become more wonderful when science looks at them.
In the winter of 1664, a strange star appeared in the night skies above Britain.
At a time when witches were still burned at the stake and people believed centaurs roamed the forest, this comet seemed, to most, a harbinger of doom.
But five young men looked up at it and dared to ask questions.
This is the story of how these extraordinary men, friends and rivals, would each play a pivotal part in understanding the comet.
Between them, they would begin to unlock the secrets of the universe and summon science into being.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: For me, the story begins with just one of these young men.
In 1664, he looked up from his studies in Oxford and saw the comet and it took his breath away.
He was a brilliant mathematician and inventor, and his name was Christopher Wren.
Today we know him as an architect for the magnificent buildings he put up in London - St Paul's Cathedral, Hampton Court - and for this, the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford.
Wren's early life was one of privilege and ease.
He was a playmate of the young Prince Charles, who, after much bloodshed and a civil war, would go on to become King.
The Civil War had turned Wren's life upside down and it left Wren with a desperate yearning for certainty, stability and truth.
And it was his thirst for discovery that was about to provide him with just that.
Wren was invited to join a little-known society.
It was known informally as the "Invisible College".
With only 12 members, this passionate group of experimental philosophers had a burning desire to understand the natural world through reason, logic and experiment.
They met every week, conducting ever more ambitious experiments.
Oxford was still reeling in the aftermath of the Civil War and this presented scientists with a gruesome opportunity.
Human corpses were in ready supply, so Wren and his friends were able to investigate human anatomy first-hand, and Wren himself was a superb draughtsman and produced drawings like this, one of the first detailed drawings of the human brain.
But Wren wanted to know more.
He wanted to understand not just form, but function.
A commonly held belief was that the spleen was as vital to life as the brain.
Wren wondered if this could possibly be true.
(DOG BARKS) On one occasion, Wren took a spaniel like this and tied the poor thing down on a table on its back.
And then Wren, in his own words, took a knife, thrust it into the abdomen, pierced the muscles and ripped about.
He then put in two fingers, pulled out the spleen and cut it away, tied up the blood vessels and the wound and let the dog go.
Barbaric? Certainly.
Pointless? Not at all.
By demonstrating that the dog could live perfectly well without its spleen, he established the notion that superstitions could be dealt with by practical experiment and that way, you would discover the truth about the world around us.
Like most scientists of his time, Christopher Wren was a polymath.
He was interested in everything, from the movements of the moon to the behaviour of bees.
He had an insatiable curiosity.
In this portrait of him in the Sheldonian, you can see him surrounded by some of the subjects of his interest - a globe, the moon, a telescope.
Long before he turned to architecture, Wren was tantalised by the heavens and what he called the "celestial mysteries".
But he had a problem.
Telescopes of the time had huge limitations.
If he wanted to explore this uncharted world, he would have to go back to basics.
So what did he do? He dissected the eye of a horse to see how a lens worked in nature, and it's this combination of anatomist and astronomer and technician that lies at the very heart of Wren's brilliance.
Using what he had learnt from the horse's eye and other experiments and observations, Wren was able to calibrate his telescope so finely that he succeeded in gaining a clear view of the moon's surface.
An astounding new world began to appear before his eyes.
STEPHEN HAWKING: In 1660, the Invisible College set up headquarters in the City of London.
With the backing of Wren's old playmate, the new King Charles, they transformed themselves into the Royal Society.
Their motto was "Nullius in verba" - "Take nobody's word for it.
" This small band of brilliant young men had begun the revolution.
RICHARD DAWKINS: But it wasn't just the rich and privileged that made up this group.
Working within the newly formed Royal Society was a young man from a very different world, and his name was Robert Hooke.
There's no surviving portrait of Hooke, but a contemporary described him as "very pale and lean with a meagre aspect, "eyes grey and full with a sharp ingenious look, "his chin sharp, his forehead large, "his hair long and lank, hanging neglected over his face.
" He was not just poor, he was also probably a hunchback.
But in 1653, he had managed to get a choral scholarship to Oxford.
He was a bit paranoid, as we would say today.
He had a chip on his shoulder but he was fiercely loyal to his friends.
He was prickly, he was jealous, he wrote his secrets down in code, but he was a brilliant scientist.
At the age of 27, Hooke was given the apparently lowly job of "Curator of Experiments" for the Royal Society.
For this he received a small wage and eventually a place to live in the Society's Gresham Street headquarters in London.
His skill as an instrument maker meant that he could help devise and construct the increasingly more sophisticated weekly experiments.
But Hooke had obsessions of his own.
He wanted to see into a world no-one had ever seen before.
The world of the 17th century was limited by the naked eye.
People knew nothing of the finely divided veins of a leaf, the tiny creatures that teemed in the streams or on the bark of trees or on our own bodies or in our beds.
But all that was about to change.
On the tip of my finger is a tiny flea.
You almost can't see it with the naked eye at all, and that's the way it was in the 17th century.
All people knew about fleas was that they caused itchy red spots and sleepless nights, until Hooke put one under his microscope.
This is an extremely precious object.
It's one of the very early compound microscopes dating from the 1670s.
It was designed, but not made, by Robert Hooke himself.
There would have been a wick there lit with oil coming from this reservoir here, and this great big bowl of water acted as a large lens, focusing the light through this smaller lens here on the stage where we put a flea.
Instead of the oil lamp, we have a modern torch here which I'm just going to switch on.
What he saw must have taken his breath away.
A revelation from an unknown world.
I can imagine it must have been a wonderful experience for Hooke and people like him to look down a compound microscope for the first time, and it opened up a whole new world of the very small.
Whenever he found something new, Hooke would put it under his microscope, and slowly and painstakingly, he began to draw what he saw.
For the first time, we could begin to understand the innermost workings of nature.
And in 1665, he published his masterpiece, Micrographia, with its astounding images and Hooke's speculations about the laws that might govern the universe.
It's a most magnificent book, it was an instant sensation.
Samuel Pepys stayed up all night reading it, not surprisingly, because it's full of incredible images that nobody had ever dreamt of.
This flea, which is an exquisite drawing by Hooke, shows amazing detail.
You see all the hairs on the legs, little hooks at the ends of the feet which are used to cling on to the host.
And here we have the most beautiful picture of a fly's head.
The way these surfaces of the eye are arranged in beautiful geometric rows - probably nobody had any idea that there was such precision, such geometric accuracy at the level of the very small, and Hooke was one of the first to see this and to draw it.
It was the birth of microbiology and everything we know about the workings of all living things.
STEPHEN HAWKING: Wren and Hooke had an obsession in common.
Like Wren, Hooke had traced the comet's progress across the skies.
These are the sketches Hooke drew in his notebook, struggling to make sense of the comet and its brief trajectory.
What was it? Where did it come from? And what made it move across the sky? But Hooke and Wren were not alone.
Three more men were also watching from the dark.
Each was asking the same questions and each would have to play their part before the mysteries of the universe could be unlocked.
The 17th century was an extraordinary time in history.
The workings of the natural world were being questioned and the very foundations of scientific knowledge were being laid down.
It was a small band of brilliant British young men that were at the forefront of this revolution.
The Royal Society continued to grow, and so did its ambition.
But London was about to come under attack.
In 1665, the plague ripped its way across the city.
Anyone who could afford it fled to the countryside, and among them was another key member of this small band of scientific brothers.
(JAMES DYSON) If I was able to meet one person from the 17th century, I'd want it to be Robert Boyle.
He came from one of the wealthiest families in the country, but he had little time for pomp and grandeur.
Instead, as a teenager, he wandered the country lanes making observations about the world around him, driven by an insatiable curiosity.
This is an example of his more esoteric writing.
"Occasional Reflections.
"Upon his manner of giving Meat to his Dogg.
"Upon the Sight of a fair Milk-maid singing to her Cow.
"Upon my Spaniel's carefulness not to lose me in a Strange place.
"Upon the Eating of Oysters.
" This interest in observing and recording everything he saw began to evolve into a rigorous scientific exploration of the natural world.
Rather than discovering something through argument, Boyle was more interested in observing nature and drawing his conclusions from what actually happened.
He devised experiments, not always sure what he was looking for, sometimes not even what he was looking at, and one subject particularly intrigued him - air.
He wanted to find out what air actually was.
What is this strange substance that's impossible to feel, invisible, odourless and yet surrounds us every day of our lives? He enlisted the help of the skilled instrument maker, Robert Hooke, and together, they built an extraordinary new device.
The air pump, and this is how it works.
You move this handle here which drives the pistons up and down, which sucks air out of the glass bell jar here, called the glass receiver.
Boyle's idea was to study air by seeing what happened when he took it away.
This was the first vacuum in Britain.
I've updated it slightly so that I can see the extraordinary effects that Boyle would have observed for the first time.
Candles went out.
Water that was only warm started to boil.
And a pig's bladder, filled with air, swelled and then burst.
Boyle was fascinated by these dramatic results.
What he discovered is that air is not just lifeless and inert, it has properties of its own.
As you pull up, it pulls back.
It has elasticity.
And as you push down, it resists.
It has weight, it has pressure and it has volume.
In 1661, Boyle unveiled his air pump at the Royal Society.
Hooke was there, of course.
He was the only one who could reliably get the apparatus to work.
Together, they performed a shocking experiment, captured in Joseph Wright's famous painting 100 years later.
They placed a small bird in the chamber .
and slowly, theybegan to pump out the air.
"The bird," Boyle recounted, "began to pant very vehemently "till growing so sick that he staggered and gasped as being ready to die.
" For the onlookers, the bird's death must have been an extraordinary revelation.
They had discovered that air was essential to life.
Boyle's air pump was a huge turning point.
It demonstrated that there was an invisible world all around us whose laws we could understand through experiment and reason.
The question was, how far could this same way of thinking apply? Were the movements of the planets and stars also subject to hidden laws? As Wren, Hooke and Boyle continued to push forward, little did they know, across the marshes in Cambridge, another man was asking the same questions.
This man, working alone, had also seen the comet cross the sky.
This man was Isaac Newton.
(JIM AL-KHALILI) Isaac Newton has always been a hero of mine, and probably every physicist you'll ever meet.
He wasn't an easy character - aloof and temperamental.
He arrived in Cambridge in 1661 after a difficult childhood.
His father had died before he was born and his mother had abandoned him at the age of three.
But the young Newton showed his genius at an early age.
At Cambridge, Newton had to work for his keep, emptying bedpans, cleaning up after the wealthy students, and of course, this wouldn't have helped his already sour temperament.
At night, he'd spend hours sitting on his bed just thinking about mathematical equations, to the extent that it literally made him ill from the lack of sleep.
Newton spent much of his time absorbed by alchemy .
boiling and mixing metals in a practice that was as close to sorcery as to science.
This room was Newton's actual laboratory.
I like to think I can still see the scorch marks on the ceiling where he'd have carried out some of his experiments.
Or maybe in this fireplace he'd have burnt mercury and sulphur in that elusive alchemical quest to try and turn base metals into gold.
But he'd begun to ask much bigger questions, way beyond the scope of his university studies.
Newton was mesmerised by light.
He'd stare for ages directly at the sun, or he'd use a mirror to reflect the sun's light directly into his eye and hold it there for as long as he could bear it.
He wondered what light might be made of and wanted to know how vision worked and he was prepared to try anything to find out.
One night in his darkened laboratory, he decided to experiment on his own eye.
He took a sharp bodkin and inserted itbetween his eye and eye socket.
Then he began to twist it.
As his eyeball deformed, gradually he started to observe some unexpected effects.
The coloured circles that formed in his field of vision set Newton's mind racing, so he devised one of the most brilliant scientific experiments of all time.
He shone a light onto a prism and through the prism, onto a screen, where it split up into the colours of the spectrum.
Now, this in itself wasn't new, but the received wisdom at the time was that the prism made the spectrum, but Newton thought differently.
Taking another prism, he tried to split the rays of coloured light again, but this time, nothing happened.
Newton had uncovered a fundamental truth about light.
He'd discovered that white light isn't pure but is made up of all the colours of the spectrum.
But this was just the beginning.
Newton had tackled the problem of colour through experiment and reason.
But as he sketched out the different angles of the refracted colours, he began to wonder if mathematics alone might help him to solve even greater problems.
The natural world, he began to realise, might unfold from simple rules and patterns.
Perhaps mathematics was at the centre of every question he asked.
And now, Newton was about to ask the biggest question of all.
Newton had started to think about the invisible attraction that draws all objects to the ground, and as he gazed up at the stars, he began to speculate that this same attraction might control everything in the universe.
When Newton watched the comet cross the sky in 1664, he too was mesmerised.
He stayed up night after night making notes.
He began to wonder, if mathematics could help explain all natural phenomena, could it help explain the comet in the sky? The comet had captured the imaginations and the curiosity of the greatest minds in Britain.
But would it be Hooke and Wren at the Royal Society, or Newton working alone in Cambridge, who could explain the mysteries of the comet, and with it, the laws that governed the universe? By the summer of 1666, the new science was getting into its stride.
In London, the Royal Society was now producing a monthly scientific journal.
Hooke's microscope had opened up an incredible new world.
Boyle's air pump had shown that without air, we cannot live.
But there was something much bigger that still fascinated and baffled the young minds.
Wren, Hooke and Boyle were all asking the same questions.
Were the heavens governed by mathematical laws? And could they discover them? Little did they know something much closer to home was about to take their attention.
The Great Fire of London burned for four days and three nights before it finally burnt itself out one block away from the Royal Society, where Robert Hooke could have seen the flames.
In Oxford, Christopher Wren saw the sky glowing red in the east and recognised a God-given opportunity.
He was inspecting the ruins while the embers were still hot.
More than 12,000 homes were burnt to the ground.
Three-quarters of the city was destroyed.
For London, it was a tragedy.
For the scientists, it was a golden opportunity.
Wren saw his chance, and within days, he presented personally to the King his plans for a new city.
His great vision was never fully accomplished, but nevertheless, with Hooke as his right-hand man, he created and designed some of the most ambitious and innovative buildings that London had ever seen - buildings fit for a new scientific age.
St Paul's, with its astonishing unsupported dome, raised nearly 300 feet from the ground, was totally unlike anything ever seen before in England .
a triumph of converting pure geometry into mechanics.
The Royal Observatory in Greenwich, designed with the sole aim of pursuing astronomy.
And for Robert Hooke, the rebuilding of London provided his biggest scientific opportunity so far.
And here are his plans.
It's a 200-foot parallax telescope designed to detect the tiny differences between what you see in different parts of the earth's orbit around the sun, and amazingly, it's still here, right in the heart of the City of London.
At 61 metres, The Monument, as it came to be known, is the tallest stone column in the world.
Hooke hoped that its size would enable him to get new measurements of the stars.
Well, here I am at the base of the tower, which means the eyepiece end of Hooke's telescope.
The eyepiece was actually down in the basement, where Hooke lived for a while, while the tower was being built.
That's where he would have laid underneath the eyepiece, which would have been a little lens, in which he would have looked up like that.
Right at the far end of the tower would have been the objective lens, something like this, right at the top, and the two lenses together, the eyepiece down below and the objective lens at the top, constituted this gigantic telescope.
The idea was that a telescope of this size would allow Hooke to see more clearly than anyone had seen before.
Trouble is, a telescope this long has got to be very, very steady indeed in order to do its job, and a tower this long is not going to be sufficiently steady, so it didn't work.
For all his efforts, the giant monument had taken Hooke no closer to solving the puzzles of the heavens.
As the decade drew to a close, the search to understand the nature of this mysterious force holding the universe together dominated the scientific landscape.
At the Royal Society in London, they studied star charts, revised mathematical calculations and made wild speculations, but the answers eluded them.
(JIM AL-KHALILI) Isaac Newton was becoming an increasingly eccentric figure, wandering the college with his hair uncombed and his shoelaces untied.
He gave lectures, but few students showed up and he would often find himself speaking to an empty room.
In his ivory tower in Cambridge, Isaac Newton wasn't immune to news from the capital.
He'd read Hooke's Micrographia, scribbling notes in the margin.
He'd heard how Boyle's air pump had caused a stir at the Royal Society.
He realised that if his genius was to be recognised, then London was the place to be.
He was confident that they would be bowled over by his theory of light and his new mathematics.
So, for the first time, he introduced himself to the Royal Society by writing a letter with his characteristic arrogance, in which he said he had made, "The oddest, if not the most considerable, "detection that had hitherto been made in the operations of nature".
When Hooke read Newton's letter, he was furious.
He was convinced that Newton had stolen his ideas from the Micrographia.
Newton acknowledged that he had been influenced by Hooke's ideas, but he insisted that he'd turned them into a proper scientific theory by giving them a mathematical proof.
He declared that mathematics would reveal a world beyond the power of the microscope and the telescope and he jibed at Hooke, belittling his contribution.
"If I've seen further," he wrote, "it's by standing on the shoulders of giants" - ostensibly a nod to the ancients, but also possibly a reference to Hooke's small stature and crooked shoulders.
Hooke took offence and broke off communication.
It was a disaster.
Hooke had spurned the one man with the mathematical talent to help him understand the laws of the universe.
Isaac Newton withdrew his papers from publication and severed all ties with the Royal Society, withdrawing to the seclusion of his Cambridge cloister.
And there he might have stayed, his revolutionary ideas lost forever, had it not been for another young scientist .
and the last of the players in our drama - the charismatic Edmund Halley.
(KATHY SYKES) Halley was as gregarious as Newton was solitary.
He was as handsome as Hooke was ugly.
He smoked, drank brandy and swore like a sea captain.
He had a passion for adventure, and courted women with silks and satins, and clashed with pirates hunting treasure on the high seas.
He was the son of a rich soap merchant, but from an early age, he realised that his destiny lay not with soap, but in the world of science and discovery.
He was fascinated by the new ideas that were opening up.
Most of all, he was gripped by astronomy and the advances promised by Christopher Wren's new Royal Observatory and he desperately wanted to be part of the action.
In 1676, when Halley was only 20 years old, he abandoned his studies at Oxford University and bet his scientific name on an adventure to the South Atlantic island of St Helena.
It was an incredibly ambitious mission.
He proposed to map the stars in the southern hemisphere.
If Halley was successful then the Navy could navigate better in the treacherous southern seas.
But it was also a chance for him to take back important new data to the scientists of Britain.
St Helena was Halley's bid to join the big boys.
Over the course of the year, using his sextant and telescope, Halley was able to chart the position of 341 stars accurately.
He did all the observations and the calculations himself.
It was a heroic job.
When Halley returned to London in 1678, he was made a national hero.
The Navy were thrilled with their new map of the southern skies.
The Royal Society made him a fellow at the age of only about 22 and the King insisted that Oxford University give him his degree.
The young Halley quickly took his place among the scientific heavyweights of the day.
Halley threw himself into the race to explain the movements of the universe.
This is the Octagon Room.
It's right at the heart of the observatory, and it's in this room that Halley and his colleagues did their observations.
Their official purposewas to perfect star charts for the Navy.
But it was the bigger questions about the universe that dominated their studies.
Keen to share ideas about the cosmos, Halley and Wren would regularly meet with Robert Hooke in London's fashionable coffee houses.
Now, imagine that this is the sun and this is a planet.
They asked themselves, why do planets move in orbits around the sun, rather than just shooting off into space? They speculated, just as Newton had done, that there was an invisible force, that the sun attracts the planet, so that instead of moving in a straight line, it's pulled around into an orbital path.
But an invisible force was a bizarre, almost mystical idea.
To have any kind of credibility, it needed a mathematical grounding.
But however hard they tried, they couldn't come up with a mathematical proof.
But then something happened that threw them all into total confusion.
Another comet had burst onto the night sky and it behaved even more mysteriously than the last, swinging in and out of view, and at one point seeming so bright, it could be seen in daylight.
It threw the scientists into further confusion.
The young Halley knew that there was only one person with the mathematical brilliance to solve the puzzle, but he was going to need some persuading.
Almost 20 years had passed since a comet crossed the night sky.
It had been a catalyst for an extraordinary new scientific movement.
But now, the appearance of another comet had raised more questions still.
The pioneering scientists needed help.
In the summer of 1684, Edmund Halley came here to Cambridge with a mission.
He wanted to track down the weird and socially dysfunctional Isaac Newton.
He knew that Newton was the only person on the planet with the genius to explain the behaviour of the planets and stars mathematically.
But it was a bold move.
Newton's reputation for being sour and unfriendly was widespread.
Halley caught Newton off guard by turning up unannounced here at Trinity.
He put to him their theory of the invisible force and the problem in explaining the elliptical motion of the planets.
(JIM AL-KHALILI) Newton was still smarting from his spat with Robert Hooke ten years earlier, so he initially rebuffed Halley.
He claimed casually that he'd worked out all the mathematics of the ellipse years earlier but hadn't bothered to publish, so it took all of Halley's powers of persuasion to convince him to redo the calculations and tell the world.
Halley flattered, cajoled and chastised Newton in turns.
He even hinted that the celebrated Robert Hooke might be close to solving the riddle.
Finally, Newton was spurred into action.
Newton threw himself into a frenzy of activity.
He devoured astronomical data collated by the Royal Society from around the world - tidal information from Asia, details of eclipses and equinoxes that medieval Arabic astronomers had made, Halley's star map from his South Atlantic trip and data from Sir Christopher Wren's Royal Observatory.
Finally, three years later, Newton's great work was finished.
This is what I would consider the greatest book ever written in history.
It's a first edition copy of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica.
What's even more exciting is that I have here the original prepublication manuscripts of the Principia written in Isaac Newton's own handwriting.
The Principia spelled out for the first time the mathematical principles that govern the universe and the law of gravity that holds all matter in place.
For Newton, gravity was a force that acts on any objects with mass, be it the moon, the Earth, even an apple.
It's the same gravitational force that keeps us stuck to the ground, makes apples fall, keeps the moon in orbit around the Earth and the Earth around the sun.
And Newton's new laws enabled Halley to finally crack the puzzle of the second comet.
It did follow the same laws as the planets but its elliptical orbit was so long and thin that it appeared to travel in straight lines across the sky, disappearing and reappearing at intervals of months at a time.
Newton had unearthed a deep and fundamental truth about the world - that there are laws that govern the way things move, that gravity connects and pulls all objects together and that mathematics is the key to all science.
It was the first provable grand unified theory of the entire universe.
(MAN) Ten, nine Ignition sequence start.
60 seconds Lights on.
Newton's laws of motion, his theory of gravity and his mathematics were the pinnacle of human thought for the next two centuries.
(NEIL ARMSTRONG) The Eagle has landed.
That's one small step for man They enabled us to put a man on the moon and me into space.
one giant leap for mankind.
They allow us to reach out into the universe to explain its intricate mechanism.
But although he was the greatest genius of them all, Newton was indeed only standing on the shoulders of giants, and among those giants were Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Edmund Halley and Christopher Wren.
Together in the 17th century, they summoned science into being.
(JAMES DYSON) Robert Boyle went on to publish prolifically on natural philosophy.
After his death, he endowed a series of lectures on the relationship between science and God.
(DAVID ATTENBOROUGH) Christopher Wren lived until he was 90, leaving an extraordinary legacy of buildings behind him.
But there is also a monument to his astronomical obsession - a crater on the planet Mercury is named Wren in his honour.
(JIM AL-KHALILI) Isaac Newton erased all acknowledgement of Robert Hooke from his Principia.
He received a knighthood, became the President of the Royal Society and Warden of the Royal Mint, where he was renowned for his cruelty towards forgers.
(RICHARD DAWKINS) Robert Hooke lived and worked in the Royal Society until the end of his days.
There are no surviving portraits of him.
It is said that they were all destroyed by Newton.
(KATHY SYKES) And the young Edmund Halley? He became Astronomer Royal and the comet whose course he'd so laboriously plotted was named after him.
It will next cross our skies in 2061.
(DAVID ATTENBOROUGH) Next time, science moves from the abstract to the practical .
from a handful to a roomful.
Scientists begin saving lives .
generating power and enable man to fly.
Together, they would start to transform the world.