Thursday, April 5, 2012

Documentary Review: Playing God

I put off watching this one for a while because the title was just so dumb, honestly. Phrases like "playing God" and so forth perpetuate this image of science as a reckless, thoughtless endeavor; a field of study full of people who don't consider the consequences or repercussions of what they do. It paints this image of science as something that will ultimately doom us all and glosses over all of the good that science has brought us.

It's doubly unfortunate that Playing God has such a stupid title, then, because it's seriously the most amazing thing I've seen in a while. All of the documentaries I've watched so far have been good, of course, but this is the first that made me go, "Holy shit!"

It's another BBC production, this time hosted by Adam Rutherford. This one is all about genetics and what amazing things scientists are doing with gene splicing: goats that produce tougher-than-Kevlar spider silk in their milk, radiation treatment in tiny carbon capsules injected under astronauts' skin, purely synthetic materials created with squid camouflaging genes that will change color from the carbon dioxide in your breath, brewer's yeast that make petroleum instead of alcohol. Everything in here sounds like the stuff of science fiction, and yet scientists are creating this today.

The good: Everything. Just...everything. It also raises legitimate ethical concerns, not fluffy fear-mongering.

The bad: The documentary gives a little too much credence to the "are we meddling with what we should not?" view in some places, but for the most part avoids that trap entirely.

One interesting fact: It was all interesting, but I think my favorite part was the "citizen science" lab that was set up in the community center of some town in California. For a small membership fee, John Q. Public can now perform science experiments that, just a few years ago, were only possible to do in university laboratories. I wish something like that had been available when I was a kid!

Would recommend? A must-see. Put your NetFlix queue on hold and watch this one tonight. Seriously.

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