There’s a knack to making a truly gripping biopic of the life of a scientist. It’s not enough to show them hard at work and illustrate the key breakthroughs and lightbulb moments; there have to be other factors at play, other stories to tell.
So, while British science is well served with people of huge intelligence and great achievements, it’s the tiny moments of great struggle that work best in a cinematic narrative. Here are five beautiful British minds whose achievements—and most dramatic moments—deserve wider appreciation:
There have been two high-profile biopics of the life of Stephen Hawking in recent years, one starring Eddie Redmayne and one starring Benedict Cumberbatch. And yet the life of Isaac Newton remains relatively undocumented, despite him being one of the founding fathers of science. Not just British science either. All science doffs its cap in Newton’s general direction, whether for his work in developing the basic principles of classical mechanics; his work formulating the laws of motion and gravity; his observations about natural cosmic phenomena such as comets, the equinoxes and the tides; or the reflecting telescope he built in order to make those observations. There’s even scope for the explosion of a few myths: the one about the apple falling on his head being the most obvious place to start.
Few people can legitimately claim to have genuinely changed the world, but Newton predicted that our planet would turn out to be an oblate spheroid, and he was proven right. And if that’s all a bit swotty for a good movie, he was also devoted to the study of alchemy, convinced he could turn base metals into gold. So for all that he’s consistently right, he’s also enormously wrong sometimes too. Maybe this is more a TV series than a single movie.
Note: you know that joke in The Big Bang Theory about fig newtons? Wouldn’t work in Britain, as those cookies are simply called fig rolls.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Here’s a story that takes steps towards that Alan Turing for matching the excitement of scientific discovery with changing attitudes in society. Jocelyn Bell Burnell was a graduate student at Cambridge University in 1967 when she discovered pulsars. These are the remains of supernovas, the small and super-dense rotating orbs that prove that once stars burn out, they don’t just vanish. She made her discovery by analyzing some seemingly random results from three miles of data taken from the radio telescope she had helped to put together, and this led to a Nobel Prize in 1974.
However, the paper announcing the discovery had five authors, with her name appearing beneath that of her supervisor Antony Hewish. When the Nobel Prize was announced, it went to Hewish, credited with the discovery of pulsars, with Martin Ryle, a fellow radio astrologer, as co-recipient.
Bell’s omission has long been a source of outrage among scientists and feminist campaigners, with Bell herself pointing out that this is simply typical of academia: “First, demarcation disputes between supervisor and student are always difficult, probably impossible to resolve. Secondly, it is the supervisor who has the final responsibility for the success or failure of the project. We hear of cases where a supervisor blames his student for a failure, but we know that it is largely the fault of the supervisor. It seems only fair to me that he should benefit from the successes, too.
“Thirdly, I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them.”
That’s probably best left for the credits at the very end of the movie, of course.
James Clerk Maxwell
If there is one single achievement among James Clerk Maxwell’s avalanche of scientific discoveries that would make a film worth watching, it’s not the development of color photography thanks to filming through red, blue and green filters, nor is it his pioneering work formulating the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation. (Exposition of the theory—that light travels as a wave in the same way that electrical and magnetic forces do—would take up half of the film). No, the real moment of dramatic excitement concerns the young Scottish genius, fresh from a childhood pointing at everything that took his fancy and asking a nearby adult “What’s the go o’ that?” to find out more about it, launching into prodigious scientific examinations from the age of 14. By 16, he is attending the University of Edinburgh (after declining a place at Cambridge after a term) and quietly discovering photoelasticity in his spare time. He then returns to Cambridge, graduating in 1854, and becoming a fellow a year later. That same year he becomes Chair of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen, a hugely prestigious post for a 24-year-old.
It is at this point that he takes up with a discussion of the nature of the rings around Saturn, spurred on by a Cambridge prize. After two years of study, Maxwell concluded that the rings could not be solid, as they would become unstable, nor could they be liquid, as wave action would force the rings to break apart into blobs. They must therefore be comprised of relatively small objects, each one observing their own independent orbit within the planet’s gravitational field. This was 1859, he was 28 years old, and his prediction was not confirmed until Voyager flew near enough to corroborate his findings in the 1980s.
Oh, and then he had a near-fatal bout of smallpox a year later, before moving to London and beginning his great works on electricity and magnetism. And he died of abdominal cancer in 1879, aged 48. It’s all there, Hollywood!
To take a step out of the realms of academia for a moment, there is a great untold story in the life of Roald Dahl that would make for a compelling drama among the recreation of his fabled writing shed, his lap-tray and pencils, and all of the astonishments of his marvelous imagination. And it’s the story of a gentleman inventor with a knack for making great things happen for children.
In 1960, Roald’s son Theo was hit by a car, and as a result developed hydrocephalus, a build-up of water on the brain. The procedure most commonly used to treat this was to apply a Holter shunt, a tube that drained the excess fluid from around the brain. However, in cases with intense bleeding, as Theo’s was, the tube was prone to jamming up with debris from the hydrocephalic ventricles, causing intense pain and risking brain damage if not treated immediately.
Dahl contacted the hydraulic engineer Stanley Wade and with the advice of the neurosurgeon Kenneth Till, they came up with a new mechanism involving two metal discs held at the end of a short silicone rubber tube. The fluid would push against the discs to allow passage out, but they would close to prevent anything going back the other way.
The Wade-Dahl-Till (WDT) valve was properly unveiled in 1962, by which time Theo no longer needed to us it, but it became a hugely useful medical tool for many years, and, just to round off the whole story with an even happier ending, the three men agreed that they would not take any profit from their invention.
We can argue over the definition of the word genius all day long, but in a world where writers, actors and pop stars are routinely garlanded with that accolade, there is definitely room for the Reverend Prebendary Edward Chad Varah, CH, CBE.
The key dramatic moment takes place in 1935, two years after he graduated from Oxford with a third-class degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and during his time as an assistant curate in the Church of England. His first service was a funeral for a 14-year-old girl who had committed suicide after confusing her first period for a sexually transmitted disease. Deeply touched by her story, he resolved to campaign for better reproductive education and provide counseling for anyone considering suicide.
Eighteen years later, as rector of the church of St Stephen Walbrook in Mansion House, London, he founded The Samaritans as a telephone counseling service “to befriend the suicidal and despairing.” He ran the service from the crypt. Within 10 years there were 40 branches across the U.K. and Ireland, and by 2011 there were over 20,000 trained volunteers manning the phone lines.
And for a spot of dramatic color, movie makers may wish to also focus on the fact that Chad supplemented his income by working as a writer for comic books, most notably as scientific consultant for the iconic space traveler Dan Dare in The Eagle, a publication he helped to launch and a schoolboy staple in the 1950s.
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