Segments in this Video

Introduction to What Is the Secret of Life? A History of Biology and Genetics (01:26)


This is the story of how history made science and science made history. The film begins by posing the question: what is the secret of life?

Living vs. Nonliving: What Makes the Difference? (01:24)

By studying humans themselves, scientists have struggled to understand what makes something alive.

Galen: Physician to the Gladiators (01:51)

For 1500 years, the study of life is dominated by a Roman doctor named Galen. As physician to the gladiators, Galen tries not only to keep them alive but also to explain the human body.

Explaining the Human by Studying Animals (01:38)

Galen writes 300 books and pamphlets explaining the human body. The essence of life, in his view, comes from spirits residing in the liver, brain and heart. His studies are flawed however; he bases his teachings on animal anatomy.

A New Idea: Realism (02:48)

Filippo Brunelleschi, Renaissance architect, introduces modern perspective painting using mathematics to explain how objects are viewed. This new way of seeing influences the study of life by focusing on realism.

Leonardo Da Vinci Creates Anatomically Correct Drawings (02:21)

Using his concrete sense of three dimensionally, Leonardo Da Vinci creates realistic detailed drawings of the human body. These diverge from previous depictions which were stylized and symbolic.

What is Beneath? (03:15)

Anatomy study moves to viewing actual human dissections in large theaters in 16th century Padua. Andreas Vesalius publishes an atlas of the human body featuring drawings and descriptions of actual observation He corrects mistakes held since Galen.

Vesalius' Approach (00:51)

Vesalius carefully observes, stripping away layer after layer of the body. His approach directs the study of life into looking deeper and deeper within.

William Harvey, English Physician (01:16)

Amidst the conflict of 17th century England, William Harvey investigates the function of the human body. His discoveries force him to challenge and then overturn orthodox views of the human body.

Impact of William Harvey's Experiments (02:48)

William Harvey investigates the volume of blood pumped through the heart. His conclusions upset prevailing wisdom. His work opens the door to a new understanding of human life.

The Human Machine (01:32)

Mechanics, based on mathematics and physics, is used to explain much of life. The idea that simple components working together make a complex machine is applied to living things.

Giovanni Borelli's Model of Human Motion (02:31)

Giovanni Borelli applies the analytical methods of mechanics to break down the body into simple concepts to study its motion. He makes models of the human "machine". Although simply described, his postulates are still valid today.

Animal Electricity: The Spark of Life? (02:41)

Luigi Galvani studies the effects of electricity on animal movement. He observes frog's legs twitching when touched by different metals. He is convinced that electricity of the life force.

Alexander von Humboldt's Experiments (03:24)

Alexander von Humboldt seeks to establish animal electricity as the life force that animated the human machine. Von Humboldt experiments on himself to cause movement with electricity. Believing electricity to be the life force leads to a dead end.

Modern Laboratory Science (01:56)

19th century Berlin is the setting for which modern laboratory science is born. Teams of scientists now collaborate to solve problems. Scientific research is formalized, impacting biology directly. New instruments such as the microscope are used.

Robert Hooke's Microscopic World (01:43)

Through the microscope, Robert Hooke views cells for the first time. He publishes his "Micrographia". The importance of his discoveries will not impact science for another 200 years.

Development of Cell Theory (02:44)

Cell Theory advances through the research laboratories in 19th century Prussia. Robert Remak observes cell reproduction and cell specialization. Scientists now know that to understand the cell is to understand life.

Making the Invisible Visible (02:15)

Synthetic dyes are used to highlight cellular structures. Different stains reveal different structures of the cell including chromosomes. Scientists observe that chromosomes replicate and play an important role in the cell.

Manhattan Project (03:25)

The Manhattan Project leads to surprising impacts. One impact is that many scientists move from that project to the study of biology.

DNA: The Secret of Life? (03:42)

Physicist Morris Wilkins uses X-ray diffraction to study the structure of chromosomes. Working with Rosalind Franklin, he photographs the DNA molecule. Watson and Crick use Franklin's photograph 51 to work out the double helix model.

DNA--Not the Whole Answer (01:42)

DNA explains much about cell functioning. It becomes the foundation of the science of genetics. DNA, in context of other cell processes, explains the reproduction and functioning of life. Scientists realize that to create life, the whole cell is needed.

Summary of What Is the Secret of Life? A History of Biology and Genetics (01:22)

Trying to find a simple explanation to life, the journey to understand reveals its complexicity.

Credits: What Is the Secret of Life? A History of Biology and Genetics (00:33)

Credits: What Is the Secret of Life? A History of Biology and Genetics

For additional digital leasing and purchase options contact a media consultant at 800-257-5126
(press option 3) or

What Is the Secret of Life? A History of Biology and Genetics

Part of the Series : The History of Science
DVD Price: $300.00
DVD + 3-Year Streaming Price: $450.00
3-Year Streaming Price: $300.00



This program tells the story of how the secret of life has been pursued through the ages, using the prism of the most complex organism known—the human body. It begins with Galen’s attempts to save the lives of gladiators in ancient Rome, continues with the macabre dissections and near-perfect drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, explores the idea of electricity as a “life force,” and ventures into the microscopic realm of the cell. The film also connects a moral crisis triggered by work on the nuclear bomb with one of the greatest breakthroughs in biology—understanding the structure and workings of DNA. A BBC Production. Part of the series The History of Science. (50 minutes)

Length: 50 minutes

Item#: BVL43344

ISBN: 978-1-61733-526-6

Copyright date: ©2010

Closed Captioned

Performance Rights

Prices include public performance rights.

Not available to Home Video and Publisher customers.