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Hostile World 

Michael Mosley reveals the ingenious ways the body defends itself against a hostile world.
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Michael Mosley reveals the ingenious ways the body defends itself against a hostile world.

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26 May 2011 (UK) See more »

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Constructing insight
20 May 2014 | by chaos-rampantSee all my reviews

I'm writing to inform that if you ever catch it on TV it's a fine thing, and a few things more.

Simple so far as documentaries go: in the macro world we have humans in hazardous situations that test the body and then we swoop inside the micro level to have computer graphics of the biological mechanism whirring into place to protect itself.

The double transplant of human hands was new for me; sci-fi is here. The rest is more familiar stuff from high school: white blood cells and phagocytes, all those tiny, cool critters that quietly snoop around inside and keep us from dying from any one of the dozens of fungi we inhale every minute. The amazingly intricate mechanism of skin that completely renews itself every few weeks etc.

Fine to be reminded, but it's one thing to know this stuff and a different thing to convey. This also chimes with other interests of mine (partially cinematic) about how we understand things and in particular how we picture the understanding to ourselves.

It seems in order for us to understand we have to be able to picture, the facts alone won't do. And this is also how ambitious films, say Mulholland Drive, push sense; the strange picture of things shows the old tools of understanding to be insufficient, calling forth new ones.

(Everything indicates that raw intelligence is a matter of being able to picture with clarity. Savants seem to be able to intuit complex things, in the same way that I instantly know at a glance, without having to think, red from blue pieces of colored paper strewn about on a table.)

It's a cinematic property with broader imports, insight as the ability to envision. So this is why this works so well, the inner picture is clearly conveyed, the skin as a craggy desert landscape with bony hairtrees sprouting up below a blue sky - you can see how the Pixar film would play.

Something more important flows from this. The facts are what they are, what we discover them to be. The picture a way of harnessing them into a view of some coherence. More deeply however it's a start to begin to know the value of what it all amounts to, the value has to be read.

Here it's to renew our marvel and gratitude for the delicate origami that is human life, not taking its complex foldings for granted. Life is of course what we encounter in the waking hour, therein is the richness, but it's nice to now and then have the picture of how finely tuned and structured is the inner universe that turns of itself and makes everything else possible.

A last remark about view will have to be about nature. The episode is titled 'hostile world', indeed it seems to be. Now a pretty dumb tendency has been on the rise since Darwin: to use the fact that nature appears to be at war to rationalize (as 'natural' instinct) all manner of discrimination against 'parasitic' and 'unnatural' others, always a small view.

A broader one would see that it's also a pretty hospitable place, the extreme rarity of a habitable planet and this was at all possible because bacteria terraformed in unison for millions of years. So what we call natural is the light in which we choose to see nature, reflects view, nature by itself is the open canvas of all that's possible to be drawn.

Transplants (and film and the wheel) aren't strictly speaking natural, but would they be at all possible without there being the capacity for them? No it falls on us to harness and sculpt things into view and this is the sense in which humanity at large is a project of artful invention.


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