Growing Up, Live: RTÉ’s own mad experiment in gene-splicing

Review: The Science Week show crosses earnest education with magazine-show ebullience

"How does a baby learn to walk and talk? Why is it that I am attracted to my partner? How can I grow old gracefully?" For a moment the scientist Deirdre Robertson appears to be asking some of the biggest and most soul-searching questions ever posed in a university lecture theatre, lightly spanning the ages of man, like the riddle of the Sphinx.

Actually, these are all riddles that Growing Up, Live (RTÉ One, Tuesday, 7pm) intends to solve, using the explanations provided by biology, currently available to us for the duration of Science Week. That the presenters are surrounded by skeletons, cadavers and what look like human organs floating in jars – within the sepulchral old anatomy building of Trinity College Dublin, lit up in red, it is hard to tell – might raise goosebumps. In which case that reaction, presumably, will also be explained.

Still, there is no immediate threat of dissection. "So we don't have to be dead to be useful?" Angela Scanlon, the assured presenter, joshes with another correspondent, Ruairi Robertson, in the accelerated patter that befits a live outside broadcast. "Depends on who you are, really," he replies. Ouch!

'I have two grannies,' one girl reports in a vox pop of kindergarteners discussing old age. 'One of them passed away and the other didn't. I think she's 31 or 32'

The maddest experiment in Growing Up, Live is its maniacal splicing together of two dissimilar species: an earnest educational programme and an ebullient magazine show. (Tell me, science, why is it that these partners are attracted?) One expression of the results is an amusing vox pop of kindergarteners discussing old age. "I have two grannies," reports one girl. "One of them passed away and the other didn't. I think she's 31 or 32."


Another is the presentation of a marvellous anatomical model of a man with staggering proportions. This turns out to be the Munster and Ireland rugby player Peter Stringer, wearing the tightest shirt that science will allow. Stringer proudly shares his many accomplishments, some of which are already made obvious by the shirt, with the audience. Then the show shares the results of his stool sample.

Stringer, it turns out, is full of it, with 93 groups of bacteria in his intestines. “Right up there with his colleagues!” Ruairi enthuses. Some guys have all the luck.

Take Frank McNally, who empirically proves even more dishier on screen than he is in this newspaper. Pithily relating the strange history of how the physicist Erwin Schrödinger came to Dublin, during the second World War, McNally explains how Schrödinger's lecture series What Is Life? inspired the discovery of the structure of DNA – even while his benefactor Éamon de Valera was insisting on our own genetic makeup as that of athletic youths and happy maidens.

As promised, we learn much about topics large and small, from teenage kicks and the pituitary excess of giantism to babies and bacteria. We somehow arrive at a segment that persuasively argues that babies are not only better designed than self-driving cars but also less likely to endanger fellow road-users.

That will surely count as a major discovery to many, and one with the familiar haziness of a daydream brought on during a double-period science class. Those conditions are unerringly replicated by the programme, right down to the gloriously protracted metaphors and unapologetic corniness of Ruairi's enthusiastic-teacher shtick. "Ear we go," he says to introduce one hearing experiment. "This coat wasn't made by Gucci or Armani, " he says of the human microbial layer, "it was made by your mommy." Oh, captain, my captain. What, pray tell, is the scientific explanation for the human facepalm response?

With two more hour-long episodes to be broadcast, I’m not convinced enough mysteries of life remain for the show to explain. But the programme’s earnest approach is still admirable, its facts often illuminating, and Scanlon so quick-witted and unflappable a presenter that she ought to be the subject of further study. The lessons continue until Thursday.