Wonders of Life; Brazil with Michael Palin

Well, Brian Cox’s Wonders of Life series really didn’t start how I expected it to do. I suppose in retrospect it should’ve been obvious that a physicist would talk about the physics & chemistry of life rather than the biology! This first episode was asking the question “What is life?”. He made a brief detour to mention that this question is typically answered by reference to a soul or other supernatural cause, but then started to talk about the laws of physics and how life exists as a result of the ways these laws work (in the same way that a star exists because of how the laws of physics work).

Life probably got started in hydrothermic vents in the ocean – which are alkaline environments. The ocean of the time (3.5 or 4 billion years ago, or so) was slightly acidic, so there was a proton gradient set up between the alkaline waters of the vent & the acidic waters around about it. The protons moving along this gradient releases energy. This is the same mechanism by which batteries work – in this case the heat of the earth’s core drives the setting up of the gradient, and because of the first law of thermodynamics (conservation of energy) all of this energy must be released when the protons move down the gradient. The hydrothermic vents are also rich in organic molecules, and the energy drives the chemical reactions between these molecules. And the first life arises from that chemistry. All life uses proton gradients to get its energy – he showed us pictures of mitochondria from a variety of animals, but the same is also true of prokaryotes (which have no mitochondria).

At first glance life violates the second law of thermodynamics – that the universe tends towards disorder. Living things are obviously complex and over the last few billion years they’ve got more rather than less complex. I never quite follow this argument (physics really isn’t my thing) but I think what it boils down to is that whilst an organism is more complex it’s achieved that in a way that disorders its surroundings more than they would otherwise be. So yes living organisms are localised pockets of complexity but the universe as a whole is still more disordered than before.

He then moved on to talk about how come life isn’t still just chemical soup in rocks. And what keeps organisms the same as their parent organisms. The answer is DNA – the instruction set for making an organism. I was much amused by his DNA precipitation experiment – take cheek cells, add detergent, salt and alcohol, and hey presto! you have white strands of precipitated DNA in the alcohol layer in your test tube. That’s pretty much the basis of a lot of molecular biology labwork – only you don’t use fairy liquid or vodka. He then ran through the basic high level structure of DNA and talked about how it codes for proteins. And then proteins are both the building blocks & machinery of cells and organisms. The great thing about DNA as a molecule to store the instructions is how stable it is – he quoted 1 error per billion bases (I think) when duplicating DNA which is a pretty low error rate. And relatively small differences in the instruction set are enough to generate very different organisms – he pointed out we’re only 1% different from chimpanzees, 1.6% different from gorillas etc.

The second episode was all about senses. After a bit of scene setting he talked about paramecium, which are single celled organisms that swim about using wee hairs (cilia) in their cell membrane. When it bumps into something in the water the little hairs reverse direction and it moves away again. It does this using proton gradients – normally there’s a difference between inside & outside the cell, and when the paramecium touches something the membrane deforms & this opens channels in the membrane and the proton gradient equalises. The energy generated by this is used to switch the direction of the cilia and to open more channels (I think) which means the change in direction propagates right round the cell. This is the basis of how all our senses transmit the information back to the brain – this is how nerve cells work.

Cox then spent a bit of time talking about how different animals have different senses (and different dominant senses). Different species therefore sense the world differently to us – our dependence on sight & hearing, and our ranges of sight & hearing, aren’t some objective way of detecting the world. Like all other animals we have the senses that we need for our evolutionary niche. In this bit I was particularly amused by the footage from some experiments on frogs – if a small rectangle is move past a frog in a horizontal orientation it goes nuts trying reach it & eat it. If the same thing is moved past in a vertical orientation, the frog doesn’t even seem to see it. When it looks like a worm, then it’s detected, when it doesn’t look like lunch it’s not worth wasting energy paying attention to.

He then talked about human hearing while sat on a boat near some alligators. The point of the segment was that despite the little bones in our ears looking like they’re designed for the purpose, actually they’re re-purposed gill arches. And part way through this long process of re-purposing the bones are the reptiles, whose jaw bones are also re-purposed gill arches. So the alligators were illustration …I still wouldn’t’ve got that close to them myself!

And obviously he talked about sight. Rhodopsin, a pigment that reacts to light, has been around in organisms for a long time – way back to cyanobacteria which have existed for a couple of billion years. And Cox demonstrated how simple a basic eye actually is – even a “camera eye” like ours (retina which does basic light detection, some sort of case with a hole in in front, then a lens in the hole. Obviously the devil is in the details, but one thing Cox didn’t mention explicitly is that eyes are believed to have independently evolved several times (the figure I remember is at least 40 times, but I don’t know if that’s right). He then went diving to see an octopus in its natural environment – which is another animal with a camera eye like ours (and it evolved independently). Octopuses are pretty intelligent, and Cox speculates that perhaps intelligence is driven by the need to process the complex images that our sophisticated eyes produce. I’m not sure what I think of that, in the same programme Cox also showed us a mantis shrimp that sees more colours and detects distance more precisely than people – but there was no talk about them being particularly intelligent.

As I said, not quite what I expected from the name of this series, but that makes it more interesting I think 🙂

We also started watching a series about Brazil with Michael Palin. I tend to be a bit wary of travelogues like this – sometimes the bits where the presenter joins in can cross the line between funny & cringe-making for me. Palin normally stays about on the right side of the line, but only just. But it’s still interesting to see the places & people.

The first episode was about the north-east of the country & was titled “Out of Africa”. A lot of people in this region have African ancestry – a lot of the slaves brought from Africa to the Americas ended up in Brazil. Palin quoted a statistic of 40%, and said this was more than ended up in the USA, which I was startled by. This has noticeable influences on the art & culture of the region – one notable example is the religion of Candomble which mixes African and Christian elements.

Palin visited a few different places in the region & a variety of different sorts of groups & events. The ones that particularly stick in my mind were the cowboys who were participating a race to catch bulls. And the national park that consists of a region of sand dunes that are blown miles inland to an area with heavy enough rainfall that there are lakes in the middle of the dunes – which looks pretty surreal.