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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: Box Set. Genius of Britain, The Scientists Who Changed the World/Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything

Sir Isaac Newton
Genius of Britain (Three Discs) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.K.: Christopher Sykes, Michael Waterhouse & Jonathan Rudd (Series director)/Gary Johnstone, 2010/2007 (Athena/Acorn Media)
Science was my weakest subject in high school. And since I didn’t much like what didn’t come easily to me, and really didn’t like passionless, styleless writing, and since most scientific texts we were given were drier than dust and as clear and compelling as mud, I tended to neglect the whole discipline.
The more fool me. Strangely enough, I loved to read science fiction in those same years, but not science itself. Maybe the outrageously learned and prolific science fiction novelist and science fact writer Isaac Asimov would have been the one to wake me up, but I only read his stories. (My painter-writer-musician mother Edna was passionate about physics, but unfortunately I ignored her too.) One exception to my stubborn and unfruitful resistance: that great storyteller Frank Capra’s ’50s Bell Telephone TV science specials with Dr. Frank Baxter (as the Scientist) and Richard Carlson (as the writer), which were funny and lively, as well as informative, and which I did like, very much. But they were the exception, not the rule.
I wish TV shows like Genius of Britain had been around then to dramatize the romance and drama (and even humor) of science and scientists, because then I (and many others even less curious than me, as well as science-prone kids who would have been really inspired by it) might have had a whole new world opened up. We would have all been the better for it.
This documentary series about Britain’s great scientists and discoverers, from the 17th century to now, is part of a new television world for which in many ways, we have to thank David Attenborough and his generation, because it was he, as a young BBC executive, who dreamed up and put across the series of deluxe, ambitious British TV documentaries on science (The Ascent of Man) and art (Civilization), many of which he was involved in as executive, writer and later host, and which have been among the crown jewels of British TV for the past near-half century.
Attenborough, with Civilisation and The Ascent of Man (which both became famous TV series and best-selling coffee table books) pioneered a new type of documentary, the artistic educational series, usually built around a single narrator/guide (Kenneth Clark in Civilisation, Jacob Bronowski in Ascent of Man, Attenborough in his own anthropological shows, liker the magnificent Planet Earth), richly pictorial and often shot on location. Genius of Man is an eminent part of that tradition, and even includes Attenborough himself (actor/director Sir Richard’s brother, if you didn’t know) as one of its narrator/presenters.
True, he‘s more of a cameo star in an all-star lineup here that includes scientists/writers/presenters Jim Al-Kahlili, Richard Dawkins, James Dyson, and Kathy Sykes, among others, and which is headed by superstar physicist Stephen Hawking. But it’s nice to see Attenborough there, and to see again his boundless curiosity and priceless enthusiasm wrapped around more amazing subjects.

Here, Hawking and company focus on the contribution to world knowledge of British scientists, from Christopher Wren and Sir Isaac Newton to Hawking himself, and that contribution proves to be rich and vast. It will probably surprise you.

Genius of Britain builds a strong case that Britain helped win World War II, stood off the Nazi Army and defeated the Luftwaffe, not so much because of the undoubted knight-like bravery of its RAF pilots against seemingly hopeless odds, but because of the massive contributions of British scientists and inventors. These exemplars include Robert Watson-Watt (the inventor of radar), Frank Whittle (the inventor of the jet engine and jet aircraft), Alexander Fleming (the discoverer of penicillin) and Alan Turning — the tragic master WW2 code-breaker, who cracked Germany’s supposedly foolproof Enigma code for the entire war, became the father of computer science, and then probably committed suicide, at 43, after being chemically castrated by his own government for being a homosexual.)
The rest of the series is loaded with astonishing facts and high drama as well, including tales of the feud between Newton and Robert Hooke, of Alfred Russel Wallace’s little-known adventurous expeditions and contributions to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the electro-magnetic discoveries of one of my mother‘s heroes, Michael Faraday, and the unusually wide achievements, ranging across bridge-building, railroad-building, international telegraph line-setting and the construction of huge non-Titanic passenger ships, all part of the legacy of the little-known Ismagard Kingdom Brunel.
Since the on-screen presenter/narrators of Genius of Britain are all expert scientists, and undoubtedly geniuses themselves, in many cases presenting their own personal heroes (and one heroine), the storytelling is compelling, full of personality and loaded with Attenboroughian enthusiasm.
God, I wish I’d been able to see this series when I was a boy of twelve or thirteen or so! Don’t let your own children — or yourself for that matter — miss it now or in the future.
Genius of Britain (Three and a Half Stars)
Episode One: The First Five (U.K.: Christopher Sykes, Michael Waterhouse & Jonathan Rudd, 2010) The presenters are Stephen Hawking, Jim Al-Kahlili, Richard Dawkins, James Dyson, Kathy Sykes and David Attenborough. The subjects are Christopher Wren (architecture, medicine), Robert Hooke (the microscope), Robert Boyle (the air pump), Isaac Newton (apples and Principia Mathematica), and Edmund Halley (Halley’s Comet).
Episode Two: A Roomful of Brilliant Minds (U.K. Sykes, Waterhouse and Rudd, 2010). The presenters are the same. The subjects are Joseph Banks (botany), James Watts (steam engine), John Hunter (anesthetics), Edward Jenner (smallpox vaccination), Joseph Priestley (carbon dioxide).
Episode Three: The Lights Come On (U.K.: Same as above, 2010). Presenters the same. The subjects are Michael Faraday (electromagnetism and the dynamo), Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace (evolution), Isamgard Kingdom Brunel (see above), William Thompson (Lord Kelvin) (thermodynamics), James Maxwell (more electromagnetics).
Episode Four: Out of the Darkness (U.K.: Same as above, 2010). Presenters same, plus Paul Nurse and Olivia Judson. Subjects: Robert Watson-Watt (radar), Frank Whittle, Alan Turning (?), Alexander Fleming (penicillin), Paul Dirac (quantum theory).
Episode Five: Asking Big Questions (U.K.: same as above, 2010). Presenters same as previous. The subjects are Rosalind Wilson, Frances Crick, James Watson, Maurice Wilkins (DNA), Fred Hoyle and Hawking (the big bang). List of subjects and topics by Harold Wolf on IMDB.
Also included: The documentary Stephen Hawking and the Theory of Everything (Master of the Universe) (U.K.: Gary Johnstone, 2007) Three Stars. Hawking, one of the more inspiring figures in modern science, both because of his theoretical work and writing and the drama of his struggle against Lou Gehrig’s Disease, discusses his specialties: the big bang, string theory, black holes and more. Trying to explain everything, he falls short, of course, but it’s instructive and fun watching and listening to him try. The other interviewees include Lisa Randall, John Schwartz, Michio Kaku and others.
Extras: Booklet on related subjects; Presenter biographies; Timeline on British scientific advances; Article on Rosalind Franklin.
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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon