When a cow is not a cow

Science made easy, with the help of one persistent parishioner

BBC Radio 4's ingeniously ambiguous series of 15-minute programmes Street Science (1-5 December, 3.45pm) takes leading scientists out of their laboratories to meet "real people". In the first, Stephen Minger, senior lecturer in stem-cell biology, visited a rural Anglican church to speak to the parishioners about experimentation on embryos.

Before, in the car, he confessed it was hard to come by human eggs. "We thought it was unjustified ethically to ask very large numbers of young women less than the age of 30 to come in and be subjected to hormonal stimulation, then have a needle inserted through their uterus and into their ovaries," he said, somewhat gloomily, before getting out at the church and commenting: "It's usual for me to be going to the lab on a Sunday morning, not church. But the bells are nice."

In the rectory it was pure Midsomer Murders. Wall-to-wall Mitford sisters, with more than an edge of the lunatic. One typical exchange: "So why a cow egg?" asked a woman, with a voice that testified to matching mittens strung on a woollen cord around her neck, six gun dogs and gin at six. "Well," said Minger, slowly, "the reason we went for cows in the end -" "- you see I thought the closest tissue to humans was pigs' eggs." (You could see this woman's slightly tarnished but nevertheless enormously valuable antique brooch with its lone blue diamond representing dew on a leaf). "You could use pigs' eggs," agreed Minger. "And you could use rabbits'. But if we're taking, for example, a cow egg and removing the nucleus from the cow egg, the nucleus is where the chromosomes are, and what makes us human are our chromosomes -" "- that's hard to understand," objected the brooch. "And what makes a cow a cow are cow chromosomes," continued Minger, infinitely patient, paternal, good. And then the brooch just says: "That's difficult to understand, because if it's a cow it seems to be a cow to me." The sense in this statement stretched as far back as the horizon and there was a palpable lull.

"Well," tried Minger, "what ultimately turns it into a cow are the chromosomes in the egg which activate the cow gene." "Yeess," replied the woman sceptically. (Although she was clearly a person of ruthless trimness, I was beginning to see her as exquisitely considerate of other people, showing her love of life by kicking the tripe out of Minger, and possibly even playing a big, sly joke on us all). "So you're saying the egg is only a shell?" she suggested. (The depth! Like Shakespeare's "My body is the frame wherein 'tis held"!) "Imagine a wine bottle and you've taken all the wine out?" said Minger, running with her now, thankful. "Yes," she ceded. "Well, you could put wine back into it!" he trilled. "Or you could put milk," she suggested. (With whisky? Like Jeff Bridges in The Fabulous Baker Boys?)

Oh, it was all positive, and everything was eventually got out on the table, and it was generally agreed that thank Christ we're not French because here we believe in regulation but aren't too fussed about existential issues like what constitutes human life and stuff like that. I love this kind of programme - one that presents an argument as perfectly packaged as a cabbage: organic, slightly innocent, and infinitely better than expected. Bliss, in fact.

Pick of the week

Great Lives
9 December, 4.30pm, Radio 4
Matthew Parris begins a new series with an appraisal of Pavarotti.

Powering Africa’s Future
11 December, 10.30am, BBC World Service
Should Africa go nuclear, or use the sun for energy?

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror