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KS4 Science: Man in the White Suit, The (1951)

Use this comedy to explore the social and economic consequences of technological advances.

Main image of KS4 Science: Man in the White Suit, The (1951)
AuthorMonica Mcateer, Kaskenmoor School
TopicScientific advances and ethics
Key Words Genetic engineering, cloning, scientific research, animal testing
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A young scientist invents a material that is indestructible and repels dirt. He soon finds himself caught between the moguls of the textile industry and the trade unions, all equally determined that his invention never sees the light of day.

The Man in the White Suit is a useful film for demonstrating how a seemingly wonderful scientific discovery can sometimes have negative social and economic consequences. The film can be linked with current scientific advances such as genetic engineering, which also have social, economical, ethical and environmental consequences.

This lesson idea uses the film to introduce the idea that with every new scientific development it is necessary to look at both the advantages and disadvantages it presents. It is a good starting point for looking at the ethical issues raised by contemporary scientific advancements and allows students to consider, in detail, how each new development must be looked at from an ethical point of view. It could further be linked to government legislation on controversial scientific research.

Lesson Objective

  • To understand that it is important to consider ethical issues raised by new scientific and technological developments.
  • To consider the social, economic and environmental effects of decisions surrounding pioneering science.


Before the students enter the room have a newspaper style headline written on the board along the lines of "Brand New Fibre- Never Gets Dirty or Wears Out". Tell the class they are going to watch an extract showing this amazing fibre being discovered. Watch the one-minute film extract entitled Finalising fibres and, when the film has finished, ask students for their initial opinions about this new fibre. Refer them to the learning objectives, in particular - can they think of any ethical issues that a fibre like the one described in the film might cause?


Main Attraction

Give the students the following quotes from the film:

  1. "It'll knock the bottom out of everything, right down to the primary producers"
  2. "Step forward? Over a precipice!"
  3. "Was the spinning jenny a disaster? Was the mechanical loom? ... they increased output, this will finish it!"
  4. "Vested interest, the dead hand of monopoly!"

Check that the students understand the vocabulary from the quotations and then watch the extract Labour and Capital, asking students to note down, in simple terms, what they think each of these quotes mean in relation to the material. If necessary use the first quote as an example, e.g. "every part of the clothing industry will be affected by this new material, right from the cotton pickers (primary producers) to the tailors who fashion the clothing."

Explain to the students that even with seemingly amazing discoveries there can be ethical issues to think about. Under the title "Ethics in Science" ask the pupils to divide their page in to three sections using the headings: Social, Environmental and Economic Consequences. In pairs, give the students a couple of minutes to fill in the table about the possible advantages and disadvantages of the indestructible material and then feedback as a group.

Ask the students to think of other areas in science that present ethical issues such as genetically modified food, cloning or vivisection. Divide the pupils into pairs and give each pair one of the issues to look at, explain that they are going to act as scientific advisors to the government and that they must weigh up the pros and cons about their issue. They should do this by filling in a similar table as before looking at the ethical, social, economic and environmental advantages and disadvantages. They should use the internet and any other resources available to them to help them research the topic. There may also be other useful extracts elsewhere in the Screenonline site.


End Credits

Allow selected pairs to present their ideas to the rest of the class. In the context of this discussion - does the class think this is how the government approaches the problem of writing new legislature regarding new advances in science? Do they think it is a good idea that the government has tight restrictions in place regarding certain controversial issues such as cloning?


External Links

Video Clips
1. Lab explosion (1:37)
2. Finalising fibres (1:29)
3. Capital and Labour (3:38)
4. The honey trap (03:04)
Downloadable Teaching Resources

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Man in the White Suit, The (1951)Man in the White Suit, The (1951)

Read more about this film

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