Monday, March 17, 2008

Bad Science

I’ve been watching with increasing inattention the BBC’s thriller series, The Last Enemy, which not only made a hash of the very interesting topics of universal surveillance and misuse of biotechnology, but had a clunking plot that advanced mostly by someone abducting the hapless hero and then telling him what was going on. But although I was almost horizontal with boredom by the end of the last episode, I was amused to see the appearance of the good old B-movie trope that any scientist can solve any puzzle by use of a microscope. In this case one scientist was peering down the eyepieces of optical microscopes of decreasing value and power at least three times, the last a student lab microscope that didn’t even have any illumination, stuck on a corner of a bench between a centrifuge and some kind of spectrometer. Now, microscopes can be very useful and powerful instruments -- I used to work with one in the 1980s that cost more than my house. But they are by no means universal tools, and although cytology (the study of cellular structure) is still very important - especially in pathology - since the advent of molecular biology it’s no longer the prime way by which we understand the internal workings of the cell. And much cytology is not done with optical microscopes, and even the most powerful electron microscope wouldn’t tell you how a mysterious virus could affect people of Arabic descent, but not white Europeans. Tsk.


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