Brian Cox: The wonder of British science

Sir Isaac Newton, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Pictures via Getty Britons Sir Isaac Newton, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir Tim Berners-Lee all changed the world through their discoveries and inventions

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The British Isles are home to just one percent of the world's population and yet our small collection of rocks poking out of the north Atlantic has thrown up world beaters in virtually every field of human endeavour.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in science and engineering. Edward Jenner came up with vaccines, Sir Frank Whittle ushered in the jet age and Sir Tim Berners-Lee laid the foundations of the world wide web. Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, George Stephenson, Isambard Kingdom Brunel… the list is gloriously long.

What is it about Britain that allowed so many great minds to emerge and flourish?

This is a very important question to ask, because science and engineering are not only part of our past - the future of our economy depends to an ever-increasing extent on our continued excellence in scientific discovery and high-tech manufacturing and engineering.

The roots of our success can be traced back many centuries. Oxford and Cambridge Universities were formed over 800 years ago.

They paved the way for the world's oldest scientific institution, The Royal Society, formed in 1660 by a group including Sir Christopher Wren, professor of astronomy and architect of St Paul's Cathedral in London.

Science heroes

Professor Brian Cox with a portrait of Robert Boyle
  • Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was a brilliant physicist and mathematician who is considered a founding father of science.
  • Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882) was a naturalist and geologist who came up with the world-changing theory of evolution
  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) was an inventor and engineer who designed some of the UK's most famous tunnels, bridges, railway lines and ships
  • Sir Frank Whittle (1907 - 1996) was a daredevil test pilot who is credited with inventing the turbo jet engine
  • Sir Tim Berners-Lee (1955 - ) is the inventor of the world wide web

The aim was to pursue a radical idea - that the workings of nature can be best understood by observation and experiment.

Any theory or idea about the world should be tested and if it disagrees with observations, then it is wrong.

Even today, that's radical, because it means that the opinions of important and powerful people are worthless if they conflict with reality. So central is this idea to science that it is enshrined in The Royal Society's motto: "Take nobody's word for it".

Shortly after The Royal Society was formed, Sir Isaac Newton deployed this approach in his great work The Principia, which contains his law of gravity and the foundations of what we now call classical mechanics - the tools you need to work out the forces on bridges and buildings, calculate paths of artillery shells and the stresses on aircraft wings. This was arguably the first work of modern physics.

This has become known as the scientific method, and its power can be seen in some unexpected places. During the filming of Science Britannica, I met Capt Jerry Roberts who worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.

Bletchley intercepted enemy messages and the captain and his colleagues were given the job of decoding them. He told me the story of his colleague, Bill Tutte, who worked on the 'Tunny" code used by the Nazi high command to send orders to generals in the field.

Bill spent most of his time staring into space, but after just a few months, he cracked the code.

In an age before computers, he did it using mathematics, logic and pencil and paper, aided by a single mistake by a German telegraph operator who sent a message twice. In the opinion of many, Tutte's achievement was the greatest single intellectual achievement of the 20th Century, shortening the war by years and saving millions of lives on both sides.

This is what happens when genius is aided by the careful, scientific approach pioneered by Newton and others at The Royal Society. Capt Roberts and his colleagues at Bletchley are, in my view, heroes in every sense of the word.

Bletchley's war

Bletchley Park
  • Bletchley Park was Britain's main decryption establishment during World War II
  • The Buckinghamshire compound is famous as the place where wartime codebreakers cracked the German Enigma code
  • Codebreaking machines Colossus and Bombe were the forerunners of modern computers. Mathematician Alan Turing helped create the Bombe
  • Historians estimate that breakthroughs at Bletchley shortened the war by two years

Despite its tremendous success, scientists have occasionally had a difficult relationship with the wider public. Frankenstein - the ultimate 'scientist out of control', has become a short-hand for things we fear.

A particularly colourful example can be found in the grim tale of George Forster, convicted of the double murder of his wife and daughter in 1803 and duly hanged.

This being the 19th Century, nobody was concerned about the hanging itself but rather illogically, the fate of Forster's corpse caused a public outcry. It was taken directly to a nearby lecture theatre and used to demonstrate the effect of electricity on the human body.

The corpse twitched and jerked and even 'opened an eye' as an electric current was applied. There were reports of fainting and a particularly sensitive audience member died of shock - a wonderfully Georgian thing to do. The scientist - a visiting Italian called Giovanni Aldini - was forced to leave the country, when in fact his motives were absolutely sound. He was trying to resuscitate people using electricity.

Far from being a dangerous lunatic, he was ahead of his time. Nowadays thousands of lives are saved as hearts are regularly re-started using electrical pulses delivered by defibrillators.

Aldini's controversial experiments were performed for a particular purpose, but not all science is carried out with a goal in mind. In the 19th Century, John Tyndall decided to work out why the vivid red and purple colours appeared when the sun is low, and why, for the rest of the time, the sky is blue.

He concluded that the colours of the sky are produced because light bounces off dust and water particles in the air. Blue light is more likely to bounce around than red, and so it is only when the sun is low and the light travels through more of the dust-filled air that the red light is bounced around to produce a sunset.

Tyndall was half right - we now know that it is mainly the air molecules themselves that scatter the light - but this didn't really matter. Tyndall's romantic curiosity led to a far more important discovery.

Find out more

  • Science Britannica is broadcast on 25 September at 21:00 GMT on BBC Two in the UK (not Scotland) and 21:30 GMT (Scotland only)
  • Or catch up afterwards on the BBC iPlayer

He decided to produce "pure" air with no particles in it, to see if the colours vanished, and he discovered that samples of meat didn't rot in it. Here was evidence that infection and decay are caused by germs in the air - which Tyndall had inadvertently removed during his purification process. The discovery ultimately transformed the way that doctors dealt with infection and contamination.

Countless millions of lives were saved, because one curious scientist wanted to find out why the sky is blue. Today, the curiosity driven exploration of nature is still known as "blue skies research".

Science has truly revolutionised our world. It is the basis of our economy and the foundation of our future. We must value our great heritage and continue to invest in education and science to ensure that we never lose our position as the best place in the world to do science.

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