Review by Justin Goodman
Robert Frost once mockingly wrote that fireflies “achieve at times a very star-like start/Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.” Twenty-one years after that poem’s publication, William D. McElroy would begin the study of bioluminescence proper by coining the terms luciferin and luciferase. The latter, explained in NOVA and National Geographic’s newest special, is like a gas while the latter is a kind of spark. But Creatures of Light, as the program is titled, is not merely about fireflies and their bioluminescent butts. Between bad puns (typical of science specials) and uncertain intention (an environmentalism message?), there are two titular creatures of light. Those terrestrial and aquatic species which we pluck, dissect, and freeze for the source of their biofluorescence, and those who are bathed in the metaphorical light of greater knowledge. Yes, humans. Yes, this is another special about the wonders of the human mind.
There is nothing remarkably new to anyone who’s had high school biology courses. Light is a tool and, as a tool, has variable uses; fireflies use it in courtship rituals, certain fish use a technique called counterillumination to hide in the light from predators below, a clip from Finding Nemo shows the “infamous anglerfish” using it for luring prey. Of course, they’re not the only ones. They show the less familiar New Zealand glowworm too, luring in lunar obsessed flies. Shots of all this, along with appropriate moody ambiance, spliced with interview material from several experts—a team from New York, doctors Gruber and Sparks, are interviewed in Times Square in a forced attempt to parallel the lights of busy cities with those faint rays which we were barely aware existed before recently.
It was only 50 years ago that molecular biologists purified GFP. GFP (and this is where high school biology loses its value) stands for green fluorescent protein. First derived from the crystal jelly, continued investigation of it eventually led to the 2008 Nobel Prize for Martin Chafle, Osamu Shimamura, and Roger Y. Tsien. GFP is remarkable in its abilities as a reporter gene, helping researchers trace the route of a genetic sequence. The beginning of this discovery was in 1992. More remarkable than this, though, is what researchers found when they traveled into the deep sea with blue lights. It’s here, at GFP’s legacy and biofluorescence, that Creatures of Light truly shines. The story of contemporary science’s attempts to commandeer these sequences for human betterment and (in the case of the Connecticut neurobiologist Vincent Pieribone) find the philosopher’s stone to the brain, red fluorescent protein, is less didactic and more exciting than men giving interviews in submarines.
Since NOVA and National Geographic are labeled educational, there isn’t nuance to the half-story. It’s about the power of the human mind to overcome obstacles, even itself, with the help of nature. The special even ends with the various projects scientists are working on to make the future less dependent on non-natural resources. Lightbulbs with GFP infused germs; Trees infused with GFP such that they glow at night; Edie Widder, the sole female scientist interviewed who gets much less air time than she deserves, creating a method of measuring water’s pollution by the same method. Because the story is one of progress, you’d have to stop and think about why Widder needs to invent this. If human beings are truly, equally, creatures of light, isn’t it ironic that we also smudge the ocean with BP and Exxon-Valdez?
As regards the science history, Creatures of Light is adequate. When, however, to swelling violin, it ends with the narrator giving “thanks to those alluring creatures of light, the fate of at least one species, our own, may be an enlightened one,” it can’t help but be myopic. When the topic changes from bioluminescence to biofluorescence, we are treated to a series of flat-footed cuts. An amber anemone turning green and fading into darkness, purplish gems on a rock-face fade to darkness, darting blue fish turn green. Then, a fish that looks as if it’s wearing a loose fitting mask of skin, red in color, opens its mouth. The fish dissolves in the spearing, bright light of a New York dance club, dull electronica, flailing limbs, and all. It makes you wonder what kind of enlightenment we’re heading towards, and whether the skin-faced fish had been trying to mask his way into a species bent on filming his negligent destruction. Humans “achieve at times a very star-like start/Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.”
Airs Wednesday, February 3 on PBS.