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Bizarre science finds

Lakshmi Palecanda, Dec 9, 2012, DHNS: 20:45 IST

Telly review

Revelation :A scene from Dark Matters
Dark Matters is a programme on Discovery Science that focuses on fascinating moments in scientific research, where individuals pushed the boundaries knowingly or unwittingly, in order to achieve a breakthrough.

The truth is that, while we look with narrowed eyes at the horizons of rapidly-growing scientific knowledge, we often fail to realise where we presently stand: in the quagmire of present-day research.

While we acknowledge scientific research as messy business, we think of the sight and smell of chemicals, the various things we do to and with them, and the clean-ups that have to be done. But, what we fail to add on is an unnerving and portentous aspect: the as yet-unknown dangers that unfolding science always brings with it.

Marie Sklodowska-Curie, the pioneer among women scientists, died of aplastic anaemia caused by years of exposure to radiation. She used to carry test tubes of radioactive isotopes in her pockets. Her notebooks, and even her recipe books, are heavily radioactive and are stored in lead-lined boxes.

Father Damien of Molokai went to the Kalaupapa peninsula on the island of Molokai, Hawaii, to serve lepers. Eighteen years later, he contracted leprosy himself and died of it.

To each of these documented cases, there are thousands of undocumented and forgotten martyrs to scientific pioneering. Dark Matters works on shedding light on some of these cases. The scientific content is solidly rooted in its authenticity, with John Noble, the well-known Australian actor and theatre director, as its host.

The music, narration, pauses and general tone of Season 1 of this show tended to be a little overdramatic, and some aspects of staging were overdone, but the scientific content was authentic, and therefore, worth viewing. I suppose the same can be expected this season too.

The programme also discusses scientific mavericks, like Louis Slotin, who used the blade of a screwdriver to control a nuclear fission reaction. People who engage in scientific work will understand this man’s hubris very well. There are people in labs even today, who will not wear gloves or protective gear, will not wash hands regularly and thoroughly, and routinely engage in risky behaviour because they think they are invulnerable, somehow. In Slotin’s case, apparently, he was warned by none other than eminent physicist Enrico Fermi that he wouldn’t last a year “if you keep doing that experiment.” Was Fermi proved right?

From the macabre to the marvelous, it is the story of Henry Molaison, whose life as a perfect Amnesic helped alter scientists’ understanding of learning and memory. This man could not hold anything in his memory: every time he met a friend, went for a walk or ate a meal, it was as if it was the first time. Interesting? Most certainly. And what did his case teach neuroscientists about memory and learning?

Dark Matters also delivers a healthy dose of celebrity items. Hedy Lamarr was an Austrian film star with incredible oomph. But she also had wonderful scientific ability. Could she have used this to save lives, if it had been acknowledged? Then we have Charles Lindberg, the darling of American aviation, who may have been an American Nazi. He believed strongly in eugenics, which is the improvement of hereditary traits by selective reproduction, and the superiority of the white race. Did he collude with German Nazis? And, did the Hungarian suicide song really prompt suicides?

If you are a science buff, this should be right up your alley. Watch the show on Saturdays, at 8 pm, on Discovery Science.

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