The Week’s TV Including Greeks, Romans, the Indian Ocean, Apocalyptic Volcanoes & More

I’ve decided to change the way I’m writing about TV programmes, because we’ve increased the amount of TV we’re watching (to try not to run out of space on the PVR) and it’s been taking a lot of time to write long posts about each programme. So instead I’m going to do a post a week of mini-reviews of what we watched, and perhaps every now & then a longer post about something that particularly catches my attention.

The Mystery of Rome’s X Tomb

This one off documentary was about a relatively recently discovered tomb in the catacombs under Rome. In 6 linked chambers there were the remains of about 2000 bodies, and at first the discoverers had no idea who they were, when they’d lived or what they’d died from. Michael Scott presented the work that’s been done in the last 10 years to try & find out some answers – it’s still a work in progress so he offered no “proof” or “solution” just the theories so far.

The bodies definitely weren’t all interred at the same time – not enough space in the chambers, carbon dating shows a range of dates & the few bits of jewellery & coins do too. So they seem to date from the 1st to 3rd Centuries AD, in several batches. There are no signs of violence, particularly not the sorts of trauma that end lives. Work has just started on trying to identify any pathogens from DNA traces left in teeth. Most of the bodies are young adults or teenagers, both men & women. They were buried in a high status fashion. The chambers are directly underneath what’s known to be the burial ground for an elite cavalry unit, and Scott speculated that these mass burials could’ve been members of this unit and their families & slaves who succumbed to plagues that swept through Rome in this era. He also speculated that these chambers might’ve been the nucleus of the later custom of burying people in catacombs under Rome.

Interesting, and also nice to watch a programme about a historical & archaeological mystery that didn’t “solve the mystery” but instead was willing to present the theories so far.

Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve

The BBC just recently re-showed an older Simon Reeve series about the Indian Ocean. The first episode covered the region from the tip of South Africa to the island of Zanzibar. As seems to be Reeve’s style we saw not just the beautiful scenery etc, but also the less savoury side of life round the coast. In South Africa and in Mozambique this was centered around trade in luxury foods to China – abalone in the former case & shark fins in the latter. The abalone trade is particularly unsavoury as it’s linked to the drug trade – both in that addicts poach the shellfish & sell it to the drug gangs to afford to buy drugs, and in that the drug gangs are involved in smuggling the abalone out as well as the drugs in. There was also foreshadowing for Somali pirates showing up in a later episode. But on a bit more of an optimistic note Reeve visited an old hotel in Mozambique which is now a refugee camp – the optimism comes from how it’s formed into a functional mini-state, with elected officials & rules, so the people have more stable lives than one might expect.

Doctor Who Live: The Next Doctor

This programme doesn’t really belong in either fact or fiction so I’ll just include it here. The BBC announced who the next Doctor was going to be live on telly – we hadn’t really planned to watch it, but did anyway. The build up involved interviews with random celebrity fans (more than half of whom I failed to recognise), and also past Doctors & companions. I also didn’t recognise Peter Capaldi’s name, but J pointed out we saw him play one of the politician/civil servant people in the Torchwood Children of Earth series, so that’s why I vaguely recognised the way he looked.

I’m already tired of the “is he gonna swear as the Doctor *teehee*” meme based on whatever it is he’s famous for … the man’s an actor, I’m sure he can play different characters differently, he’d not be very good otherwise.

Ancient Apocalypse

Mystery of the Minoans

We’d watched the first episode of this series some time ago, possibly not long after it aired (in April last year, when I wasn’t writing up TV I’d watched). It was about the end of the Old Kingdom in Egypt, hence why we watched it so quickly, but the other episodes are about other apocalypses. Mystery of the Minoans was about the end of the Minoan civilisation on Crete.

The basic idea is one we’d seen before (in a Bettany Hughes programme we watched in 2010 (post on LJ)) – the island of Thera (modern day Santorini) is the remains of a volcano that erupted 3500 years ago, just a few decades before Minoan civilisation collapsed and was conquered by the Myceneans. The various experts in this programme showed us evidence of how massive the eruption was (possibly bigger than had previously been thought) and what effects that would’ve had both immediately & more long term. Immediate effects included wiping out the towns on Thera itself, which were an important part of the Minoan trade network. They also included devastating tsunami that hit Crete, and would’ve destroyed a lot of towns & infrastructure and killed a lot of people. Longer term there was a noticeable effect on the climate – for instance we were shown tree rings from preserved tree trunks in the Irish bogs which showed no or very little growth for 10 years after the eruption.

It felt a little shallow, which was a problem with the first episode too if I remember correctly. Not dreadfully so, but more than once I’d’ve liked a little more detail on the data they were presenting – for example a brief explanation of how they had dated their tree trunks so precisely would’ve been nice. Or giving the date ranges for the various different bits of evidence so we could judge for ourselves how much it all added up. (Possibly I expect too much here 😉 )

The Maya Collapse

Sadly the third episode, about the collapse of the Mayan civilisation was more shallow rather than less. The worst piece of padding was when we got a couple of minutes of jaunty mexican music while our hero archaeologist walked up a set of stairs and then back down. With the camera lingering on his cowboy boots because he was a Texan. But there were several other bits of fluff that could’ve been cut out as well and replaced with a bit more info about the subject of the programme.

It concentrated on the end of the Mayan civilisation which appears to have been rapid and comprehensive – about 1200 years ago there were Mayans, and then the cities & villages are abandoned with only a few people who survived. The archaeologist we followed (I’ve forgotten his name :/ ) was an ex-banker who’d become obsessed with the question of what happened & after his bank collapsed had gone back to university & got an archaeology degree so he could work on the question. He actually came across rather well, despite the attempts of the programme to shoehorn this into a “those academics were too hidebound it took an outsider to think of the answer” story.

The apocalypse in this case was drought. The Yucatan region has no rivers or lakes & so the people who live there both then & now are completely dependent on the rainy season to fill up man made reservoirs. If the rains fail, disaster strikes. The archaeologist looked at various different bits of evidence (ice cores, climate models, old records of past climate, mud cores and more) and discovered that around the time of the Mayan civilisation vanishing there was the worst drought in the last 7000 years. In addition to the lack of water directly killing off people there is some evidence that the priests were blamed for failing to get the gods to make it rain, and so were violently killed – and also for society in general descending into violence & unrest.

Who Were the Greeks?

This is a two part series about the Greeks presented by Michael Scott (the same one who presented the programme about a Roman tomb I wrote about above). He’s taking as his jumping off point the idea that we all think we know about the Ancient Greeks – they were philosophers, the first scientists, artists, inventors of democracy. And in this first episode at least he was telling us about how they were also a culture that seems completely alien to our modern eyes. So the first part of the programme was about the Greeks as warriors – not just Sparta (although he discussed Spartans at length) but also the other city states including Athens. He also talked about the Greek notions of sexuality, which are not the same as our modern ones at all. There wasn’t this distinction between straight and gay, instead there were differences due to a man’s age – a young unmarried man was expected to want to form a relationship with a young teenage boy. Then he was expected to grow out of this (in the same way he’d grown out of being the boy in such a relationship) and to marry by the time he was 35. There were also cultural rules about what sort of sex was appropriate with one’s wife and that was different to what was appropriate with one’s mistress or a prostitute.

Scott also discussed the blurring between what we’d consider the seperate domains of science & religion – no actual concept of religion as we know it in Greek culture at the time. Instead the gods & their involvement in the world were just a part of the way the world is, and you could both expect the gods to come to you in a dream to cure you of an illness whilst also seeing a physician who prescribe treatments more like what we’d recognise today. He also talked about slavery, and how even the democratic society of Athens was built on a slave-holding society – sure it was a democracy, but only male citizens had rights & a vote.

One of his other themes for the programme was the way Greek society put a high premium on perfection – both of the body & of the mind. Babies were exposed if they were imperfect & weren’t expected to live, men were expected to work on their physique, and were expected to display their education & ability to think. Life was lived mostly in public, and scrutinised by your peers.

Royal Institute Christmas Lectures: Meet Your Brain

The last lecture in the series was mostly concerned with the social aspects of how our brains work. So there was some stuff about empathy & about how we develop a theory of the mind as we get older (I’m always surprised when I remember it kicks in as late as 3 or 4 years old). Both of which are a sort of mind-reading that lets one fit into groups better, by being able to work out what other people might be thinking or how they might react. And there was also a magician who did a few tricks during the lecture – using the way we instinctively follow someone’s gaze or look where they’re pointing to direct our attention away from where the substitutions & so on were being performed.

It’s been a bit odd watching this – I remember when I was a kid the Christmas Lectures were awesome and I didn’t think they were very “child oriented”, but now it seems very much aimed at the kids. But still quite fun to watch the series.

The Secret History of Genghis Khan

The Secret History of Genghis Khan was a programme we’ve had sitting on the PVR for a while. It was a mixture of re-enactment with voice-over and a few talking heads. The narrative was based on a text written after Genghis Khan’s death by his adopted son, which was part hagiography & part teaching tool for his successors. It has survived only in a Chinese copy discovered some centuries after it was written. The programme as a whole felt a little too uncritical of it’s source to me. Yes, it did present a different (and more nuanced) view of Genghis Khan to the traditional Western memory of him as solely a brutal butcher. And they did mention that it was written for a purpose rather than necessarily accurate, but I think it would’ve been nice to have more of an attempt to point out which bits were backed up by other evidence or not (for instance). It was definitely entertaining to watch, tho – the live action re-enactment scenes had a vaguely Monty Python air to them. Like the scene with a priest blessing the Christian knights before they went into battle who suddenly turns round with wide, startled eyes to see the Mongol army riding at him right now.

(More than once they had shots of people playing big drums and the music had drumbeats that sounded like they should be from those drums … but visuals & noises didn’t match up. Didn’t bother me that much, but it was driving J bananas!)

Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble; The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England

The second episode of Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble was all about alpaca farming in Peru. In the first half of the programme she stayed with a family who herd alpacas in a traditional way. To feed themselves they grow potatoes and keep guinea pigs. The guinea pigs have free reign of the house & are fed on the potato greens so they’re combination pet, recycler & dinner. According to Humble they taste like dark chicken meat. The alpacas are kept for their fibre – it’s not wool apparently, but that’s a technical distinction of some sort because it’s the equivalent of wool in all ways. The family shear the alpacas by hand with a kitchen knife, and then keep some of the fibre for themselves to spin and then make the very brightly coloured cloth that the region is famous for. The rest of the fibre is sold to a middleman who sells it on to the cloth industry. Because their herd is not pure-bred alpaca they don’t get much money for the fibre. In general their lives are hard, but they prefer it to moving to a city where the standard of living would in some ways be lower.

The second half of the programme took us through the way that the alpaca cloth industry in Peru is moving from this traditional style herding into the modern world. Humble started with a cousin of the subsistence farmers she’d been staying with. He’s both a collector (one of the middlemen who buy the fibre) and a farmer. Having seen where the fibre is sold to & the requirements he realises that the sort of herds that he & his cousin have aren’t the best – so he’s bought himself a pure-bred male alpaca & is gradually breeding his flock to have better quality fibre. Next Humble visited a man who herds alpacas in a large scale way. His ranch has thousands of alpacas (instead of the 60 or so that the first family have), and they are a particular breed that has very high quality fibre. Instead of just letting the animals mate as & how they choose he selects his best males & best females & breeds those. And being a large scale ranch owner I guess he also sells direct to the cloth industry rather than through a collector.

She then visited a cloth making factory. The cloth they make is mostly exported with China being the biggest buyer. They are particularly interested in helping to improve the herd quality of all their suppliers (including small farmers like the first family) because places like China & the US are starting to herd their own alpacas, so Peru’s advantage in the market will be in having the best quality fibre. And so Humble then went to visit an alpaca breeding research centre which is part funded by this cloth manufacturer. They’re working on developing artificial insemination techniques for alpacas with the idea that small farmers might not be able to afford a pure-bred male, but might be able to afford the semen to produce better quality offspring for their female alpaca. So the alpaca industry is just at the point where it’s optimising for the modern world and a global market, but it’s not quite there yet.


Translating the Bible into English doesn’t seem like a big deal in the modern world – I think I own 3 different English translations (plus a New Testament in Scots) – but in Tudor England it was heretical and punishable by death. One of the programmes in the BBC’s recent Tudor Court Season was The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England, which was a biography of William Tynedale presented by Melvyn Bragg. Tynedale’s English Bible eventually formed the basis of the King James Bible, but Tynedale himself was regarded as the most dangerous man in England for producing it and executed for heresy.

Tynedale was born on a farm in Gloucestershire near the village of Slimbridge, which is still a working farm today. He was educated at Oxford – first in Magdalen College School, at the age of 8 in the early 1500s, then at Magdalen College. Bragg used this introductory bit to set the scene for Tynedale’s later translation. At the time the Bible was only available in Latin – the language of the Church and of scholars (the two groups overlapped to a high degree). The Catholic Church had built up over the centuries a collection of doctrines & traditions that weren’t actually in Bible (like Purgatory, the requirement for confession & penance to save one’s soul etc), and the hierarchy of the Church was positioned as necessary to save the souls of the congregation. Tynedale (and other Reformation thinkers) saw the way the Bible was only available in Latin as a power play on the part of the Church – keep the congregation from reading the actual text & you keep them reliant on the priests to explain it. And you keep anyone from noticing that the Church has these non-Biblical traditions.

Tynedale had always had the ambition to translate the Bible into English so that everyone could read it, and his education had only served to reinforce that. Bragg was telling us that when the students studied the Bible they only looked at verses in isolation, rather than reading the whole Bible & getting a feel for the overall text. During this time Tynedale learnt of the ideas of Erasmus who promoted the idea of reading a text in the original language to get the best handle on the text. For the Bible this would be Hebrew (for the Old Testament) and Greek (for the New) and Tynedale learnt these and other languages.

After Tynedale had graduated & been a priest for a little while he came into conflict with other clergy over his emphasis on the Word of God rather than the Church traditions. Bragg quoted from a description of an argument where another clergyman said that it was better to do without “God’s law than the canon law”, to which Tynedale reacted angrily – declaring that he would “cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”. This crystallised his desire to translate the Bible, and his first step was now to go to London to visit the Bishop of London & try and get backing for his project. This was the first of a few naive sounding things that Tynedale did in his life. The Bishop of London at the time was Cuthbert Tunstall, and Bragg described him as being a part of the Church orthodoxy & a close associate of people such as Thomas More. Unsurprisingly he didn’t back the heretical project that Tynedale proposed.

Realising that this would not end well, Tynedale eventually left not just London but also England and moves to Germany to work on his translation. Just to orient ourselves in the wider history I should point out that by this stage Martin Luther has started the Reformation in Germany, and it’s spreading through Europe. Henry VIII is on the throne of England, and had written his defence of the Catholic Church that earnt him the title of Defender of the Faith. So in moving to Germany Tynedale is aligning himself with the Protestant Reformation, and against the English Crown as well as the Catholic Church.

Tynedale completed his translation of the New Testament, and sought out a publisher in Cologne. Cologne was Catholic, but nonetheless he found someone who would produce the book and plans were made to print a few thousand copies & to smuggle them into England. Unfortunately for Tynedale his publisher was also contracted to work on a text for a member of the Catholic orthodoxy from England (Bragg told us who this was, but I’ve forgotten the name :/ ). The plans for the English New Testament were discovered & Tynedale had to flee with the project incomplete. He moved to Worms, and found himself another publisher so that he could restart the project. Tynedale’s life work wasn’t over with the printing of the New Testament, he continued to work on translating the Old Testament – going back to the Hebrew. Before his death he finished the first five books, which were also printed & subsequently distributed in England.

Bragg took the time at this point in the programme (and later on, near the end of it) to wax lyrical about Tynedale’s translation. He didn’t just translate it into English any old how, it was vivid & poetic language which sticks in the mind and has flavoured the whole of modern English – as much as Shakespeare did. Turns of phrase that Tynedale employed are still a part of our idioms today. But Tynedale didn’t just choose his words for maximum impact & memorability he also picked them to advance his Protestant ideas. So a word that was traditionally translated as “priest” became “elder”, and one that was traditionally translated as “Church” became “congregation”.

The authorities in England were obviously on the lookout for Tynedale’s Bible’s arrival in England, but several thousand copies still made their way into the hands of the more Protestant-minded members of the public. Bishop Tunstall preached against the English Bible, saying that it had errors and was heretical & blasphemous, and he presided over a bonfire outside St. Paul’s burning copies of Tynedale’s Bible. This didn’t quite go all the Bishop’s way – even those who might not’ve read the Tynedale text themselves weren’t entirely comfortable with burning the Word of God even if it was a potentially heretical version of it.

Thomas More led the hierarchy’s campaign against Tynedale’s work. There was a very amusing segment of the programme here where there were two Braggs on either side of a church aisle reading passages from More & Tynedale’s publications where they held forth on how dreadful and corrupt the other was. This had developed into a personal feud, not just an academic & political difference of opinion, and More at least started to resort to very vitriolic & foul-mouthed tirades against Tynedale. Including writing things like “You have kissed the ass of Luther and are now covered in shit”.

When Henry VIII was seeking to divorce Catherine of Aragon it looked like Tynedale would come into favour in court. This was because with the Pope refusing to grant the annulment Henry was searching for other ways to get what he wanted. Tynedale had published a treatise called The Obedience of a Christian Man, which was primarily arguing for everyone to read or hear the Word of God directly (so vernacular translations of the Bible are required so that the congregation as a whole can understand). But as part of it he said that Kings should not be subservient to the Church authorities – that God has anointed the King as the secular authority over a country and so the King should answer to God, not the Pope. Obviously Henry liked the sound of that, and used this as a plank in his splitting of the Church of England from Rome. But Henry still found the rest of Tynedale’s theology heretical (like the idea of an English Bible), and Tynedale went on to publish other treatises that didn’t sit as well with Henry including one opposing Henry’s divorce on the grounds that Henry’s use of scripture to justify it was an incomplete summary of the scriptural references to marrying one’s brother’s widow.

So Tynedale was still considered heretical, and Thomas More (amongst others) was still violently against Tynedale & all he stood for. Eventually Tynedale’s downfall was engineered by an agent of the English. This man, Henry Phillips, wormed his way into Tynedale’s good graces – he pretended to be a great admirer of Tynedale’s and to be interested in his theology. He then set up a trap – he came to Tynedale saying he had no money and got Tynedale to take him out for dinner. He then persuaded Tynedale to lead the way along a particular narrow secluded alleyway, and straight into the hands of soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire. Tynedale was imprisoned, and sentenced to death for heresy. Thomas Cromwell tried to intercede on Tynedale’s behalf, but was unsuccessful.

Tynedale was burnt to death, the typical punishment for a convicted heretic. As an act of mercy he was strangled before the fire was list, but this strangulation was incompetently carried out. Tynedale revived during his burning, but witnesses say he was stoic & silent as he died. (Which seems somewhat unbelievable.)

His Bible translation did not die with him, and Tynedale regarded that as more important than his own life. Cromwell eventually persuaded Henry VIII to endorse an English Bible, and the text of this was primarily that of Tynedale’s translation. Tynedale wasn’t credited, however, because he was still regarded as a heretic (and Henry still carried a grudge against him for not approving of the divorce). The Henry VIII Bible fed into the King James Bible translation, and so Tynedale’s words and work still lived on.

The Genius of Marie Curie: The Woman Who Lit Up the World; Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble

The Genius of Marie Curie: The Woman Who Lit Up the World is part of a loosely linked series of programmes that each examine the life & work of a pivotal figure in Western history of the last couple of centuries or so with an emphasis on science or invention. We’ve watched the Newton one recently (post) and the Turner one last week (post) and on Monday we watched the one about Marie Curie. And it was interesting, a look at both her life and the work that made her famous. But my enjoyment of it was tainted by the way they chose to frame it.

For the Newton programme the opening segment talked about how he wasn’t just interested in things we’d think of as scientific today, he also worked for several years on alchemical experiments and developed his own theological understanding of Christianity. For the Turner programme the opening segment talked about how he’d lived through the Industrial Revolution and painted works that were of that time – they talked about his painting of the Temeraire being towed by a steam tug to be broken up and how that symbolised so much about the age. So the focus in both is on the achievements of the man in question – intellectual or artistic.

For the Marie Curie programme it started off well enough – the opening segment runs through her achievements (2 Nobel Prizes, a woman who succeeded in a man’s world, someone who refused to conform to societal expectations etc). But then the voiceover said something akin* to “In every great life there’s a pivotal moment and the reaction to that is what comes to define their life”. And this moment that they chose to present as “defining” was the discovery of her relationship with a married man by the press & the resulting scandal. Rather than, say, her Nobel Prizes. Or if you’re after a human interest angle what about her work driving a mobile X-ray unit during the First World War, which they suggested later in the programme was what lead to her death. But no, they’d rather frame it as a woman who had a scandalous love affair (while doing science on the side). Gah.

*We’ve deleted the programme already so I can’t check the exact wording.

I hadn’t even heard of that before, I know of her as “Polish woman who discovered radium, married Pierre Curie, eventually died from radiation related disease” – so I don’t see that relationship as something that’s permeated into the zeitgeist as defining. Gah.

To be completely fair, they did later in the programme make the point themselves that the press & public interest was because she was a woman, and that this was sexist. Einstein had affairs & no-one talked about them instead of his physics, why should it be different for Curie. But that doesn’t let the programme off the hook for centring this scandal, and presenting it as at least as important as her work (if not more so).

Two other irritations before I talk about the interesting bits. Firstly, every time they showed us a photograph they did this jerky pan across & around it which was intensely distracting. And secondly, the soundtrack was very obtrusive and the choice of songs not nearly as funny as they thought it was.

So. Despite my irritation with the programme on a philosophical level and on a technical level it was still interesting. What I knew about Marie Curie before was fairly bare bones & it was nice to get that fleshed out a bit (even despite the above). She was born Maria Skłodowska in Poland and grew up in Warsaw during a period where it was ruled by the Russians. At that time there were supposed to be no schools or universities in Polish, no Polish music or dancing – basically the Russians were trying to wipe out Polish culture. Her mother died when Maria was 12, from tuberculosis. Her father was a teacher of physics & maths, and he taught his children these subjects. Maria and her elder sister Bronisława made plans to move to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. They had to move because the Russian run universities in Warsaw at the time would not admit women, whereas the Sorbonne did. The scheme was that Maria would work as a governess in Poland to earn money to support her sister at university, then once her sister was established Maria would move to France & her sister would support her at the Sorbonne. While working as a governess Maria fell in love with the eldest son of the family (not one of her charges) but his parents wouldn’t agree to the match because she wasn’t a suitable class of person – he was unwilling to go against his parents’ wishes and this rejection sent Maria into a depression.

She had at first given up the dream of studying at the Sorbonne, but she enrolled at the illicit “floating university” in Warsaw and studied chemistry (and other subjects?) there. This was a Polish run, Polish language, university and was forbidden by the Russian rulers – and they would teach any Pole who wanted to learn whether male or female. This rekindled her interest and she went on to join her sister in Paris. She excelled in her studies, graduating first in her class. And then she went to work in the lab of a man named Pierre Curie. Her first studies were on magnets – this was relatively lucrative work, because there were commercial interests that would pay for the development of new alloys to make better magnets for better electrical generators. Over time she & Pierre fell in love, and when the homesick Maria talked about returning to Poland he talked about following her there. However in the end they married & remained in Paris (I can’t remember if the programme said why – wikipedia suggests that Warsaw University wouldn’t have her as a PhD student because she was a woman, whereas she could do research in France).

Marie Curie started to work on radioactive materials not long after the initial serendipitous discovery of the phenomenon by Becquerel. She developed (and with Pierre’s help built) apparatus to measure the radioactive rays coming off a sample, and analysed a large number of different substances which was painstaking & tedious work. One sample, pitchblende (a uranium containing mineral), was more radioactive than anything she’d previous analysed including uranium itself. So she theorised that there must be some new element present – and set out to isolate it. This was a mammoth task, as the element was only present in trace amounts. They had some footage of her stirring a great vat of what I think was pitchblende & nitric acid. Eventually she and Pierre isolated and purified their new element – Radium. So called because it glows.

During this time period the Curies had two children. Marie Curie was more interested in her work than her children and they were mostly brought up by her father-in-law. This caused a rift in the family, although Curie and her eldest daughter reconciled by the time she grew up. Curie & her younger daughter didn’t reconcile until Curie was dying many years later. Both Marie & Pierre Curie suffered increasingly from ill health during this time – the effect of their work with radioactivity. Pierre tragically died – not as a direct result of his ill health, which I hadn’t realised. He was actually run over by a horse & carriage, the implication was that if he’d been in better health he might’ve got out of the way.

Curie’s first Nobel Prize was in 1903 for Physics – originally this had only been intended for Becquerel & Pierre Curie but Pierre complained and insisted that Marie’s name should be on the award too otherwise he wouldn’t accept it (good man!). The second one came in 1911, 5 years after Pierre’s death, in Chemistry. This came at the same sort of time as the scandal of her relationship with a married man broke – and the Nobel committee made noises about how if they’d known she was that sort of woman then they wouldn’t’ve given her the prize. Her displeasure with this broke her out of the depression she’d fallen into after the scandal and the end of the relationship*. (The man in question kind of didn’t quite fight a duel to restore his honour, and came away reputation intact, somehow *eye roll*)

*The programme spent more time on this, but I’m irritated by that so I’ve skipped the details here.

In the First World War Curie read that shortage of X-ray machines meant that the French army was losing soldiers who might’ve been saved – and she designed a mobile X-ray unit and drove one (of several?) herself. She and her elder daughter operated this unit for most of the war. There was still no idea at the time that X-rays or radioactivity were dangerous, so Curie didn’t have any protection from the X-ray machine. The programme later said that this is now thought to’ve lead to the aplastic anaemia that killed her (her body wasn’t radioactive enough for it to’ve been the radium).

After the war Curie continued with her work on radium, founding an institute for investigating the element. She was a respected scientist, attending invite-only conferences with other prominent physicists (like Einstein). And was the only one of them to have two Nobel Prizes in two different disciplines – an achievement that is still unique. Despite all this she still had difficulty securing funds for her research & at one point didn’t even have enough radium for her work to continue. This came to the notice of an American journalist (Marie Mattingly Meloney) who had written articles about her, and who organised a fundraising drive throughout the USA to buy Curie’s Institute a gram of radium. When the money was raised Curie visited the US and toured the country giving many lectures before being presented with the radium by the President in a White House ceremony.

Curie eventually died of aplastic anaemia, caused by exposure to radiation or X-rays, and was buried with her husband. In 1995 their bodies were exhumed (hence knowing how radioactive she was) and re-buried with a full state funeral in the Panthéon in Paris – she’s the first (and only) woman to be buried there because of her own achievements.

So, an interesting but flawed programme. But I did at least learn more about Marie Curie and her work.


Wild Shepherdess with Kate Humble is a new series about sheep farming. The hook for it is that Humble owns and lives on a sheep farm in Wales, and for this series she’s visiting sheep farmers in other countries. I think the three episodes will also roughly speaking cover past, present & future (the intro segment hinted at that) but I won’t know that for sure till I’ve seen them all!

This first episode was set in a very remote village in Afghanistan where they still farm in traditional ways dating back thousands of years. The people Humble visited live in the Wakhan Corridor which is part of Afghanistan due to European colonialism. To the north of this narrow strip of land is Tajikistan, once part of the Russian Empire, to the south Pakistan, once part of the British Empire. The Russians and British didn’t want their Empires to meet, so the borders are drawn so that a finger projects from the east of Afghanistan to separate the two countries. The programme opened with Humble travelling through Kabul (the most dangerous part of the whole trip) because this was the only place they could fly to the Wakhan Corridor from. After flying for 250 miles across the mountains they landed in the valley where the Wakhi people live in winter. During the summer months (Humble arrived towards the end of summer) half the population live here, and grow wheat & barley. The other half travel over the nearby mountains to a plateau called the Great Pamir where they graze their flocks of sheep.

After walking to the plateau, with the help of some locals & their yaks to transport their gear, Humble & her camera crew stayed in a couple of different villages to see how these shepherds live. In the first one they were made welcome immediately & encouraged to film whatever they wanted. Here Humble saw the everyday life of the shepherds – a routine of driving the sheep out to graze, bringing them back to be milked in the middle of the day and then at night to protect them from predators. The grazing here is better than in the home valley, and there’s not the space to both grow crops and graze sheep, so the increased risk of predators is worth it. Humble pointed out how the sheep didn’t look like her sheep in Wales – they have much bigger bottoms where they store fat for the winter ahead. They’re also tamer as they’re milked every day, unlike Humble’s sheep which are grown for meat and so not handled by people often. She also seemed envious of their good health, despite the harsh conditions – there are diseases sheep get in the damp climate of Britain that they don’t get in places like Afghanistan which are drier & more like where sheep evolved.

After a bit of time in this first village Humble moved on to another village, because she wanted to film the migrations that these people do as winter starts drawing in – they move progressively down the valley away from the winter. The first village was already quite low (relatively, a mere 4000 feet above sea level …), so they had to go elsewhere to film. This second village weren’t so keen to have foreigners come in & film, and negotiations were protracted. At first a faction among the men were refusing any access, but the women encouraged Humble to sneak a camera in & film them cooking food. The next day the overall chief turned up from the other half of their village (the wheat growing half) to supervise the impending move & he was happy for them to film & quashed the refusals.

Through the whole of the programme Humble showed us how these people lived, and how hard their life is. She talked in particular to one woman who listed the people in her family who had died – two brothers, two sister, her husband, and of her seven children only one was still alive. An appalling list of grief. Their diet is very basic, and mostly the stuff they produce themselves – bread and (buttery) tea for everyday. A sort of flour & butter porridge for more special occasions. And every once in a while they’ll eat meat – one sheep will be spread around the whole village (50 people or so in the second village). A lot of babies die – 1 in 5 before they’re one year old. Half of all the under-twos are malnourished. For the little that they don’t produce themselves they need to buy – and the only way they have of earning money is to sell off a yak. Humble filmed some traders who’d walked up the the Great Pamir to buy yaks, they said they came to the area because they would get good animals and a cheaper price than anywhere else. But while they were talking about how hard this subsistence farming is they were also talking about how they’re glad they’re not closer civilisation and to the war.

I like Kate Humble’s programmes – we saw the ones she did about the Frankincense Trail and the Spice Trail a few years ago. She’s got a knack of not ever making it seem like “look at these funny foreign people”. In fact in this one the sympathies of the narrative (so’s to speak) were clearly with the Wakhi people as they were vastly entertained by how this grown woman didn’t know how to do any of the basic necessities of life. One woman was consumed with laughter as Humble tried to milk a sheep – “what’s she doing? she’s just tickling it!”. Another got Humble to help her churn butter and then could barely believe how she wasn’t strong enough to really help out.

Australia with Simon Reeve; The Tube: An Underground History

For the last episode of Australia with Simon Reeve he travelled down the east side of the country from Gold Coast to Melbourne. In Gold Coast he did the obvious surfing thing (and met the Meter Maids who wander round the streets in bikinis and buy new parking tickets for cars that’ve stayed past the end of their ticket). Then he spent a while exploring the less polished side of the city – first by accompanying the police on their rounds one evening. They told him that organised crime is a big problem in the city due to the heavy drug-using culture in Australia, particularly in this area, and pointed at the biker gangs as the main components of this. Reeve then visited a biker gang for the other side of the story – they were saying that they were just misunderstood. That offending rates go down once someone joins a biker gang. And somewhat undermined that with the “if you don’t mess with us we won’t mess with you” attitude that definitely came across as a threat.

Reeve next visited the Liverpool Plain which has some of the richest farmland in the world, and talked to an old couple who’ve farmed there for all their lives. The region is gradually being encroached on by the mining companies, because it’s resource rich (like the rest of Australia) and this couple & their neighbours had recently won a battle against having their land purchased to be mined. Looking at how the mining is done (strip mining on a large scale) it seems daft to do that to farmland that is feeding the country. And on a similar daft note he talked to environmentalists trying to save the koala about how close to extinction they are as the suburbs spread out into their habitat. Again given how much land there is in Australia and how comparatively few people you’d think it would be possible to leave more koala habitat to the koalas.

In Sydney he talked about the growing multicultural society in Australia since the “whites only” immigration laws were ended in the 1970s. Now one in ten citizens are of Asian descent, and he talked to a couple of very different examples. A muslim woman who’s part of the first Muslim ladies Aussie Rules team, and a billionaire who was born in China and has built about 5% of the highrise apartments in Sydney. From there he travelled to Melbourne, visiting a bushfire on the way. He didn’t spend much time looking at Melbourne, just a bit of time at the Australia Day celebrations.

I’ve liked watching this series, Reeve had a knack of pointing out the issues & bad points as well as showing the scenery & the good sides of life there. There was quite a lot about immigration & integration of different peoples into society – noticeable by their almost total isolation were the aborigines, only in the army did we see them involved with the rest of Australian society. And the programmes also looked at the various environmental “challenges” facing Australia, despite how it’s a vast resource rich land it’s still finite.


The Tube: An Underground History was a programme made to celebrate the London Underground’s 150th anniversary (which is this year). It was a combination of old footage (I wondered if a lot of it had been recycled from a 100th anniversary programme) and interviews with people who work there now. In the hour it covered the history of the Tube, from its beginnings as a collection of private companies in Victorian times through the nationalisation of the 1930s, the post-war decline & then renewed investment after the fire in Kings Cross Station. And it also showed us the things that’ve been done earlier this year to celebrate the anniversary – running a steam train along the first ever section of line running from Paddington to Farringdon (filled with politicians & bigwigs, just like the first ever train was). And Charles & Camilla visiting and solemnly riding on a tube train (a normal one not the steam one).

It was entertaining to watch, they’d picked their interviewees well – including the station supervisor at Farringdon who was a complete drama queen but funny with it. And a train driver who’s a bit obsessed with the tiling patterns at the various stations (designed to let you distinguish the stations even if you couldn’t read the signs). They also interviewed a descendent of Charles Pearson who had the idea and got together the funding for the first segment of line – apparently he’d tried to get permission to do it & investment based on the way it would be a social good (allowing people to move out of the slums near their workplace & into better, cheaper housing in the country) but had failed several times. Then he hit on saying that the congestion on the streets would drive business out of London & people funded him based on the idea that this underground railway would prevent this. And obviously the programme also talked to graphic designers, given how iconic things like the logo & the map are – both the guy who now is in charge of this for the whole company, and a man who was a friend of the chap who designed the tube map.

Ice Age Giants; Australia with Simon Reeve; TOWN with Nicholas Crane

The last episode of Ice Age Giants looked at why there are none of these large animals left. The first half of the programme concentrated on North America where there were the greatest proportion of extinctions. Roberts started by talking about the idea that it was people – we were treated to a proper true crime documentary moment where the voiceover was all “but beneath the peaceful streets of this Tennessee town lies a dark secret” etc etc. And saw how there is an excavation pretty much in someone’s back garden – of mastodon bones that look to have been hunted & butchered by humans. So was it people? Roberts pointed out the problems with that theory – not many people in North America at the time, lots of megafauna, and a few thousand years of overlap of people & megafauna.

So what else? How about the floods that created the coulees (also known as the Channeled Scablands) in Washington (the state). These features of the landscape are vast vast canyons that have been scoured out of the rock, but there’s no sign of a river. The theory to explain what caused them is that as the glaciers melted a great lake of meltwater was formed in Montana which is known as Glacial Lake Missoula, this was penned in by a dam formed by the melting glaciers. When it broke through it did so catastrophically and the water rushed to the west of the continent carving its way through the rock as it went. This happened several times as the glaciers advanced & retreated, I think she was saying a couple of hundred times over just a few thousand years. This would’ve killed anything in it’s path (and created what still looks like a blasted landscape today). But that can’t’ve killed all the animals, it would just’ve got the ones in its path.

How about climate change? This isn’t a case of it just getting a bit warmer all over – the melting of the ice sheets released more water into the rainfall systems, so the world got wetter as well as warmer. Still not quite that simple, the swamps that the glyptodonts lived in dried up & became desert because the rainfall moved north as the ice sheets retreated and the more southern regions warmed up. Roberts now skipped across to Europe and the woolly mammoths & woolly rhinoceroses of the Mammoth Steppe. These enormous herbivores relied on the dry grasslands to provide them with sufficient food all year round. As the world warmed up, and got wetter, forests grew where there had just been grassy plains. And it started to snow in the winters on the Mammoth Steppe. Woolly rhinos couldn’t cope with that – snow covers the grass and makes it harder to find, it’s also hard to walk through so you need more energy to move around and so more food. So that’s what killed off the woolly rhinos – an Ice Age Giant killed by it snowing too much, not at all what you’d expect.

And now we circled back to the mastodons of North America. There is research being done on fungal spores in soil that can indicate how many herbivores have left their dung on the land – if you look at soil from the past you can estimate herd sizes (or at least changes in herd sizes) over time. And these show that the large herds of mastodons & other herbivores died out before the climate change changed the vegetation (which you can tell by looking at seeds & pollen in the same soil samples). So probably not climate change as the whole story here. Roberts then talked to a palaeontologist who thinks he has an answer for the mastodon extinction. He has looked at the types of injuries on female mastodon specimens, and also looked at the types of mastodon that show signs of butchering. In modern elephants (which are close cousins of the mastodons) preferential hunting of mature adult males destabilises the herd structure. Normally a dominant male swoops in to a female plus offspring herd when the females go into heat and mates with the females. He also suppresses the behaviour of the adolescent males. When there is no dominant male, the younger males that still live in the female herd will go on a rampage when the females come into heat – and can injure females & calves (and each other) in the process. This palaeontologist thinks he sees evidence of this happening to the mastodons, so it was people that caused their extinction but in a very slow process caused by preferentially hunting solitary adult males which they wouldn’t’ve been able to see happening.

Last up for extinction were the woolly mammoths – which survived on a remote island north of Sibera until around 2000BC (when people arrived on the island). Apparently from the evidence on this island the mammoths were becoming dwarf mammoths … by mammoth standards anyway. Roberts talked a little bit here about the potential cloning of mammoths that is now becoming possible due to the extraction of DNA from very well preserved frozen specimens.

And Roberts ended the programme with a romantic notion of how we’ve also saved some of these Ice Age Giants – like horses. They became extinct in America, their ancestral home, but survived across Europe & Asia and were then domesticated. She was talking about it as a beautiful partnership, but I’m afraid I was amused by it rather than moved by it 😉

Anyway, I greatly enjoyed the series. The CGI wasn’t perfect (something always looked a little off about the way the animals moved, and there was a lot of repetition of sequences that made it a bit too obvious it was generated) but it was good. And the science was presented in an un-sensationalised way – lots of “we think” or “this is a possible explanation” rather than grand solutions to mysteries.


Having finished watching Brazil with Michael Palin (post) we started to watch another travelogue we had been recording – Australia with Simon Reeve. We’re both pretty sure we’ve seen Simon Reeve present another programme in the past, but neither of us can quite remember what it was.

In the first episode of this series he started in central Australia then headed south to the coast followed by west to Perth. In central Australia he focused on an animal you don’t expect to be the subject of a programme on Australia – the camel. Camels were brought to the country as a means of transport, being well suited to the desert conditions in the centre. With the advent of cars they weren’t needed any more & were released to the wild where they now roam freely. Unsurprisingly they cause a lot of damage to the ecosystem and to the farms in the region & so they are regarded as pests. Some farmers just shoot them when seen, but Reeve talked to one farmer who was rounding them up and selling them back to the Middle East for food & for racing.

Next Reeve went to visit a winery – a vast commercial winery with gallons & gallons & gallons of wine in big tanks, supplying relatively cheap wine to supermarkets across the world (this was owned by Hardys). This segued neatly in to a segment about how water is a limited resource & it’s being over used in Australia as a whole. Reeve then visited another limited resource – tuna, which is being overfished in the seas near the Australian south coast. He visited a facility where they’re trying to breed tuna in captivity, which involves conning the tuna into thinking they’ve migrated by changing the lighting and so on as it would change if they really were migrating.

From there to resources that are booming – he visited an area which has a modern day gold rush & talked to some weekend hobbiest prospectors, and also visited a huge commercial mine. Next, Reeve visited a village where an aboriginal community lives having been moved off their land when the mining companies discovered resources underneath it. They haven’t been compensated for the loss of the land, nor have they earnt anything from the metals being dug up from under what they still regard as their land. Reeve said that the situation is complicated & the government is trying to help, but the aborigines are still living in third world conditions.

From there he went to the other end of the spectrum – he took a train to Perth where he visited some British ex-pats who are living the dream. The man he spoke to had been a bin man in Sheffield, he’s now teaching people to drive trucks so they can work for the mining companies. His pupils earn more than he does, but he earns about £60k and has a big house with a pool etc, just what he came out to Australia for. And the episode finished up with Reeve visiting an airport where “fifo” commuters fly from – that’s “fly in fly out”, the commuters work in the mines (doing things like driving trucks for lots of money) and live in Perth getting back & forth by plane.

The second episode covered the north of Australia, which is particularly sparsely occupied. He started out in a national park (Kakadu) helping to trap & cull cane toads. These are a non-native species that was introduced to eat beetles that were pests … they didn’t eat the beetles, and being poisonous & non-native they have no predators amongst the native animals. So they’ve spread & are killing off the wildlife in the park which dies trying to eat the toads. The cull seemed a bit like it would just make the people doing it feel like they were trying – if there’s millions of toads then catching & killing a couple of bin bags full won’t do much good.

Moving towards the east Reeve visited the Australian army, first one of their tank regiments then he spent a bit of time on patrol with a unit doing observation in the outback. This segment reminded us that Australia is actually right next to Asia, rather than being a stray bit of Europe stuck in a southern ocean. In the bit with the patrol they talked about how the unit was mixed race & that this didn’t cause problems in a way that made it sound like that was an unusual situation. They also talked about how the aboriginal members of the team were vital in teaching everyone how to live off the land – they made green ant tea for Reeve, which apparently was quite nice … not sure I’d’ve been keen to drink it. The follow up to this section was a visit to an asylum centre, Australian law is that asylum seekers must live in these detention centres while their application is processed which can take months or years. Reeve spoke to activists on the behalf of these immigrants who say that conditions in the centres aren’t good – lots of the inhabitants self-harm or commit suicide. Reeve spoke through the fence to some of the inhabitants, who’d come from the sorts of places you’d expect – Iraq, Afghanistan etc.

From there we moved on to the slightly more cheerful subject of another aboriginal village which owns resource rich land. Whilst it looked as depressing as the place in the first episode the ray of hope here is a young woman who has set up her own company with the long term plan of the village itself doing the mining on the land closest to them. At the moment she rents 4 bulldozers out to the company who’re doing the mining, which I got the impression was proof of concept.

And the programme finished with another couple of segments looking at the natural world – first Reeve joined some scientists who were taking samples of the stinging tentacles from box jellyfish. These jellyfish are extremely poisonous, and live in shark & crocodile infested waters. From the way the scientists were acting (and not letting Reeve do much but observe) they weren’t exaggerating the dangers. The venom from the stings is useful for drug research – there’s a lot of complex biochemistry involved that does things like target the actual poison to particular areas of the body and other stuff like that. So understanding it might help make better more effective drugs.

Last up was the Great Barrier Reef. Changes in the water (due to increased use of fertilisers etc on land) have lead to destabilisation of the ecosystem there, and Reeve was shown how people are culling the starfish that are killing off the coral. He also joined a ship pilot who guides coal ships through the reef – there’s not much room to spare & it’s a dangerous task, but the wealth generated by the coal industry means that they are still permitted to run their ships through the area.


In our quest to free up some space on the PVR we’re watching all the programmes we have recorded in HD first – and only recording new stuff in SD. Just before that decision we started to record TOWN with Nicholas Crane in HD so it’s come up to be watched a little quicker after airing than I think we might’ve got round to it otherwise. It wasn’t quite what we expected, guess I didn’t read the description that closely when I set it recording. Instead of being about towns as a general thing each episode is about a particular town.

The first episode is about Oban, a town on the west coast of Scotland that’s where you go if you want to get a ferry to the Western Isles. And the main theme of the programme was that that isn’t all there is to Oban, that the town is itself a worthwhile place to visit.

Oban wasn’t a town until comparatively recently so his talk about the history of the place started off with nearby Castle Dunollie which was the seat of the Chief of Clan MacDougall until 1746 when the Clan Chief moved to a new house nearby. Surprisingly “Battle of Culloden” and “Jacobite Uprising” weren’t mentioned during Crane’s discussion of this. I had a little poke around on wikipedia and it seems like the 1746 move was a coincidence as the MacDougall Clan Chief wasn’t involved in that Jacobite Uprising, but I’d’ve thought that was worth mentioning on the programme just to say it wasn’t involved. Oban became a town after this – the first industry in the town was tobacco but this collapsed once the ship that brought the tobacco over from Virginia sank. After that the primary industry in the town was whisky, Crane visited the distillery which is still making whisky today. In the 19th Century Oban was finally linked by road & rail to the rest of the country. It was a tourist destination, partly due to the links with the Western Isles but people did visit the town itself. Queen Victoria was one of those tourists. After that it fell into decline & most people who visit aren’t stopping, just moving on to the ferry. One more recent bit of history is that Oban was where the first transatlantic telephone line ran to, and this was an important link between Washington D.C. & Moscow during the Cold War.

In terms of the modern town Crane spent a bit of time looking at the major employers in the area. Oban is the hub of the postal service for the Western Isles, and everything there has to be run like clockwork to match up with the ferry services. Another major employer is the granite quarrying operation a bit north of Oban – all the people who work there commute by ferry because there are no road links to the quarry. Crane also visited a few of the cultural offerings of Oban. He met a local painter who paints a lot of the landscapes around the area. He also visited a cèilidh bar where there is a traditional band & traditional dancing. And he also ate at a gourmet restaurant which is on the harbour so that the fish & shellfish are very very fresh.

Ice Age Giants; Brazil with Michael Palin; Guts: The Strange and Mysterious World of the Human Stomach

The second episode of Ice Age Giants was about the large mammals in Europe during the Ice Age. Roberts started by visiting Transylvania where there is a cave that contains fossil cave bears. The caves also have patches of the walls that have been worn smooth by the bears passing through the caves. These bears were larger than grizzly bears, and were vegetarians. As with modern bears they hibernated, and the animals found in the caves are mostly those that didn’t make it through the winter. But the cave bear specialist showing Roberts these also showed her two that seem to’ve slipped down a steep slope in the cave & failed to make their way out – there are scratch marks in the mud on the cave walls that look like the two bears, an adult & a cub, failing to scramble back up.

Also found in this cave is a cave lion skull. These were one of the top predators of the European continent and mostly ate medium size herbivores like deer. But it seems this one, through desperation or foolishness, had tried to sneak up on a hibernating bear and found it still awake. They had done a CGI fight between the bear & the lion which looked very impressive but not quite real enough. The lion’s skull showed signs of damage from teeth which is why it was thought to have died in a fight.

Cave bears were common early in the ice age, but became rarer as the temperature got colder and eventually became extinct at the beginning of the last glacial maximum. But some animals thrived in the colder weather and the first of these that Roberts talked about was the Woolly Rhinoceros. These animals looked exactly as you’d expect – a rhino with wool, with a bigger horn than a modern rhino. A well preserved one has been found near a remote town in Siberia so they know what the wool looked like as well as the skeleton. Preserved woolly mammoths have also been found in this area, including a baby one that I’m pretty sure we’ve seen before in another Alice Roberts programme.

Both the rhinos and the mammoths were herbivores, and ranged over a wide area from England to Canada – due to how much water was locked up in ice at the time Britain was linked to the continent via a land bridge, and Alaska & Russia were also linked. You’d think that during the ice age herbivores would have problems in the winter due to snow, but actually there was little snow across this area again due to the amount of water locked up in ice sheets. The Mammoth Steppe, as it is called, was an open grassland with lots of flowering plants. This is known from work done in Canada examining the contents of fossilised ground squirrel nests. The squirrels hibernated and stocked their nests with food for the spring before they slept. The nests of ones that failed to make it through the winter obviously still have their spring food store in them when they are excavated and this lets scientists see what seeds and fruits were around at this time.

The last animal discussed were human species. Starting with Neanderthals who are known to’ve killed & butchered mammoths. The expert Roberts talked to thought that they probably did this by herding one down a dead-end gorge and then flinging rocks down from above to kill it. The CGI for this bit was a little less than convincing, which was a shame. The other human species at this time was our own one, and Roberts looked at evidence that they used the mammoths for more than just food. It’s though that they built houses from mammoth tusks (as the tent poles) with hides stretched over them for a roof. Roberts also looked at a piece of carved ivory, in the shape of a bison, from this time.


In the third episode of Brazil with Michael Palin he travelled through the south east of Brazil to Rio de Janeiro. First up was an old gold mine and a current iron mine – this region is a source of a lot of Brazil’s mineral wealth. The gold was mostly mined on behalf of the British (I almost said “by the British” but that’s very much not true). There was a brief stop off at a couple of places, one of which was a farm where a man had a cow with 5 legs and two digestive systems, which was actually mostly to show us how the rural poor lived I think.

Then on to Rio de Janeiro where the rest of the programme was set. Palin didn’t just visit the rich bits of the city but also the poorer areas. The Brazilian government is making a huge effort to clear up these areas and drive the drug lords out and drag the communities into the 21st Century before the World Cup and the Olympics. First armed troops go in for the “Pacification” and then there is investment in the infrastructure and projects like schools and boxing clubs for the youth.

And in last episode he visited places in the far south and the south-west of Brazil. He started by visiting a current heir to the no longer existent Brazilian throne … I hadn’t even been aware that Brazil had been an independent monarchy, apparently they’re descended from the Portuguese royal family. And from that leftover from the past he went on to visit an aeroplane making company, very much an example of Brazil’s future.

Palin then spent some time in Sao Paolo, concentrating mostly on the poorer side of the city, and also pointing out how many Japanese immigrants there are in this part of Brazil. He then went to a town that was like a theme park Germany transplanted to Brazil – Blumenau. Obviously they’d dressed up to do their traditional dances for the benefit of the cameras, but when he then talked to some of the residents of the area they were saying they felt German first & Brazilian second, even though they weren’t necessarily first generation immigrants.

And the series finished up with a trip through some of the more unspoiled areas of wilderness in the south. J commented while we were watching that one of the places was the sort of place an Ancient Egyptian might want to end up. Pantanal is an area of wetlands, that floods annually. The residents farm cattle and the wildlife includes species of ibis.


Guts: The Strange and Mysterious World of the Human Stomach was a programme we’d recorded a while ago, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to be too squeamish to watch. In the end it turned out to be mostly OK – just one sequence where I kept my eyes shut most of the time, and only a couple of contenders for “worst job ever” 😉

The thread tying the whole programme together was a demonstration Michael Mosley had done at the Science Museum. He swallowed a small camera which transmitted pictures from his digestive system over the course of the day. First it travelled down his oesophagus into his stomach, and spent a while there. They supplemented this batch of pictures with a set from a more high resolution camera on a tube that went down his nose, and he ate a selection of brightly coloured veg so that we could see them arrive in the stomach and start to mix with the gastric juices. Then after that second camera was removed he ate a large meal, and there were pictures of that being digested – most of what you could see was the veg, the steak had pretty much disintegrated by the time it got to the stomach. After that the camera moved through the small intestine, where we could see the intestinal villi which are little frondy projections from the surface of the small intestine to increase the surface area available for absorbing food. The stat they quoted was that the surface area of the inside of the human small intestine is about the size of a tennis court. Then the camera proceeded into the large intestine where it mingled with the faeces.

In between the various pictures of Mosley’s insides there were a series of short segments about related things. In the first of these he visited a historian who told him about the discovery of the composition of gastric juices. This was fairly astonishing – a doctor (William Beaumont) in Canada had a patient who had been shot in the stomach, and when the wound healed it left behind a small (inch or two diameter) hole in his flesh straight into the stomach. So afterwards the doctor did various experiments both putting things through the hole into the gastric juices to see what happened, and also drawing out some of the gastric juices to do other tests. Before that digestion was thought to be purely a mechanical process, but this doctor showed that the chemical action of the acidic gastric juices was a critical part of it. There was also a very brief segment just after this where Mosley dipped a coin in a beaker of artificially made up gastric juices and saw that it cleaned the coin.

Still on the subject of the stomach there was a segment about gastric bypass surgery. Which is the one I shut my eyes for most of – I can cope with pictures of someone’s insides, but not so much with surgical stuff stuck into someone. The operation we watched (or in my case listened to) was on a severely overweight man who’d had a heart attack in his late 20s, after a couple of years of unsuccessfully trying to shift the weight his doctors decided that gastric bypass surgery was the best option. I didn’t know before that what actually makes most of the difference after these operations is that there are behavioural changes. Partly because a hormone secreting part of the stomach is segregated from food so doesn’t do its normal job with increasing appetite, and partly because the bit of the small intestine that sends signals to say “full now” is closer to the stomach so the signal is sent sooner after eating starts. 6 weeks after the surgery the patient was saying he’d lost 3 stone, and had gone from never feeling full to being satisfied after eating quite small meals.

When talking about the small intestine there was a segment on perception of gastric pain, and the correlation with differences in personality. For this Mosley filled in a personality test then went through some pain tests (tube down the nose, balloon inflated in oesophagus till it hurt) while hooked up to blood pressure & heart rate monitors. The doctor doing the research was classifying people into either neurotic or extrovert categories, and he had found that the two groups had different responses to pain. Neurotics (like Mosley) showed reduced blood pressure and reduced heart rate. That’s not at all the expectation Mosley went into the test with – the textbook reaction to pain is increased heart rate & blood pressure, which is what extroverts show. The doctor was saying this has implications for treatment of gastric pain – different treatments will work better with different types of patients.

Moving on to the large intestine we had the two candidates for “worst job ever”. First up was the woman who cultures samples of faeces in the lab to look at the types of bacteria they contain. The ecosystem of the large intestine is very complex, with a large number of different types of bacteria. These can aid us in our digestion by breaking down the things we can’t, or they can be the cause of problems. She also talked about flatulence (which is a by-product of a healthy digestive system) and how the differing smells of farts is down to differing compositions of bacteria in the large intestine. Smelly ones are down to having more hydrogen sulphide producing species. Flammable ones down to having more methane producing species. Second candidates were the two people who were doing faecal transplants – in these faeces from a healthy person are mixed with salt water and put into an unwell person’s stomach via a tube down the nose. This can introduce a better mix of bacteria to the gut.

So this turned out to be quite an interesting programme, although I was somewhat glad that we ate our pudding during the other programme we watched on Wednesday rather than during this one!

Wonders of Life; Brazil with Michael Palin

The third episode of Wonders of Life had the theory of natural selection as its theme, but once again didn’t approach it from the direction I expected. Instead Cox started by talking about how the most important element for life is carbon, because of its versatile chemical properties that allow it to form large & complex molecules with a variety of other elements. These molecules include proteins (which are the building blocks of organisms) and DNA (the instruction set). So he started by telling us about carbon being formed in stars, and then talked about how carbon in the atmosphere gets into organisms. The first stage is photosynthesis – where plants take CO2 and energy from the sun and turn them into sugar (a molecule with a carbon backbone) and O2. From here Cox moved on to talk about how the carbon that the plants are made up of move through the food chain – a lot of animals eat plants, but they are hard to digest because a lot of the carbon is bound up in molecules like cellulose & lignin which are important structural parts of plants. Termites solve this problem by farming fungus in their colonies, which digests the wood they bring it and then the termites eat the fungus. Giraffes in common with other ruminants have a complicated digestive system with multiple stomachs, one of which contains bacteria which help break down cellulose. Other animals take the shortcut of eating animals instead of plants – there was some great footage here of a leopard coming to pay a visit to the (very open!) car that Cox & camera crew were sitting in. I don’t think I’d want to go on safari, that’d freak me out!

Having established how animals get their basic components (to some extent) and talked about foodchains, Cox now moved back to DNA and how come there are so many different sorts of organisms. First he gave a brief description of how DNA codes for proteins (with not much detail) and then we talked about what drives mutations. He name checked the sorts of causes, and showed us one – cosmic rays. That was a pretty neat experiment, I don’t know that I’d seen a cloud chamber before and it was cool to see the cosmic rays passing through the vapour in the tank! He then talked about the incredibly high number of combinations of possible DNA molecules that there are if everything was down to random chance – most of which would be instructions for organisms that couldn’t live. So there must be something that constrains the set of combinations, and that something is natural selection.

I found his explanations here to be rather muddy to be honest, perhaps because I would’ve approached the subject differently if I was doing the explanation, perhaps because it was a high level overview of something biological told by a physicist so something got lost in the translation. But we got neat footage of lemurs in Madagascar, so that made up for it for me (and I hope that other people watching it who didn’t know what he was talking about in advance found it comprehensible). The gist of it was right, anyway – that variation between organisms affects their chances of survival (like having a slightly longer thinner finger for an aye-aye makes it easier for it to dig out insects from trees so that makes it easier for it to get food and to stay alive). If something survives more, it has more offspring so there are more like it in the population. And over time these changes can build up (the middle finger of an aye-aye looks really very different to that of other lemurs), and if the population is isolated in some way from the rest of its species then they will become a different species and no longer able to interbreed with the originals. Isolation can be geographical (he showed us how the break up of the supercontinent Gondwana had left Madagascar isolated for tens of millions of years), but it can also be within a geographical area by lifestyle or habitat. (After complaining about his muddy explanations, I think mine probably are too, ah well.)

The fourth episode was all about size, and how the laws of physics affect the size of organisms and the size of organisms affects which laws of physics are important to the organism’s everyday life. He started by swimming with great white sharks (he was in a cage so quite safe, but frankly I would really rather not have that experience personally), and using them to illustrate how the effort required to move through water constrains the shape an animal is – sharks, as with fish and aquatic mammals, are streamlined. He also talked about how living in water allows animals to grow larger, because the water counteracts some of the effects of gravity.

This moved nicely onto a discussion of how on land as animals get bigger they need bigger skeletons to support themselves, and this constrains the sorts of shapes they can be (big animals are proportionally bulkier) and the ways they can move. He illustrated this with Australian marsupials, and worked in an explanation of how kangaroos’ locomotion is so efficient because their elastic tendons store the kinetic energy that they have when they land, and then use that to spring back up again. But the main point of this sequence was to show us the relative femur (thigh bone) sizes of various marsupials both living & extinct. As the length of the bone increases (so the animal is bigger) then the cross-section increases significantly more (i.e. a five-fold increase in length but a forty-fold increase in cross-sectional area) – this is because the mass of the animal has increased in proportion with its volume, and volume increases as the cube of length.

Cox then turned from animals our sort of size (i.e. mice to elephants …) where gravity is the dominant force, and moved to the much smaller scale of insects. Particularly amusing in this bit was him dropping a grape then a watermelon off a balcony to demonstrate that small things bounce and bigger things … don’t. He talked about how this is due both to smaller things falling a bit more slowly (due to friction with the air) and also because big things have more kinetic energy that must be released when they hit the ground (because it’s proportional to mass, I think). And this is done via exploding in the case of the watermelon. So gravity isn’t the big thing for an insect, instead it’s the electromagnetic force, which controls the interactions between molecules – like the way you can pick up a small piece of paper by wetting your finger so the paper sticks to it. This principle is what lets insects walk up walls or across ceilings.

He then went on to talk about what the smallest possible size for an organism is. First for animals – of which the smallest known is a wasp that’s about 0.5mm long, and is a parasite that lays its eggs in the eggs of a moth that feeds on & lays eggs on macademia nuts. And then for bacteria (skipping viruses because they’re not really alive) – where the smallest possible size is 2nm (I think) which is constrained by the size of atoms. You can’t be smaller than the volume necessary to fit all your cellular machinery, and those molecules are the size they are because their atoms are the size they are.

And then Cox talked a bit about how size affects metabolism, and how that in turn affects longevity. Smaller things have a higher surface area to volume ratio (because as something gets longer its surface area goes up by the square of the length change but its volume goes up by the cube). And this means they lose more heat than a larger version. And if you’re an endotherm (like people are) and generate your heat inside you, then the more you lose the more energy you must use to replace it. So smaller animals tend to have a higher metabolism and generate more energy from more food more quickly. Bigger animals both don’t need so much energy (if they’re endotherms) but also there are other constraints that mean that they need to slow down their metabolism. I think one of those was that it takes longer for things like nutrients to get through the circulatory system and so cells at the periphery can’t run too fast otherwise they’d burn up all their resources before they could be replenished (I’m not sure I’ve remembered that right though). Then Cox finished up by using crabs to illustrate that things with a slower metabolism tend to live longer (and this segment made J shudder because he hates crabs!).


The second episode of Brazil with Michael Palin was called “Into Amazonia” and covered (roughly speaking) the north west of the country, including the capital (Brasilia) and some of the indigenous people. The programme was bookended by the two tribes he visited – starting with the Yanomami who are very isolated and trying to remain so and ending with the Wauja who are assimilating some bits of modern Western culture while still preserving their own culture. The leaders of both peoples are worried about the impact that government projects (such as dams and mines) will have on their way of life, and frustrated about the lack of consultation.

Palin also visited one of the last remaining rubber tappers – rubber was a major export from Brazil before the British got hold of some seeds and grew rubber trees in Malaysia. A bit of a sad segment, because the industry has just dried up & gone away. As a counterpoint I think this was where he got to swim with the pink river dolphins, which right up till they showed up I had assumed were going to be some sort of euphemism (particularly with the solemn young man explaining how sometimes girls turn up pregnant & they say the dolphins did it)!

I’m not going to run through everywhere he went or everything he saw, but the other bit that stuck in my mind was Fordlandia. This was a planned town, with a Ford factory, and it was supposed to be a perfect America (this is back in the 1920s). But what it was was a perfect failure, and all the remains today are some abandoned ruined buildings in the jungle.

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.