Nova scienceNOW Does a Story on Getting the Shaft

Nova scienceNOW is an undeniably likable show.  The host, Neil deGrasse Tyson is fun, warm, and knowledgeable; and the show itself educates as well as entertains.  It manages to walk to careful line between overly simplified and overly in-depth seemingly with ease. 

The third episode this season however does contain tweaks from the previous two, and not necessarily for the better.  First, at the end of every segment there are now a couple of interesting postscripts to the story given via text.  Second, the profile story is now the fourth and final story as opposed to being the third.  Third, and maybe it’s just this episode and an anomaly, but Tyson seemed to appear less often than before.  While the first two of these changes are interesting and maybe help the flow of the episodes, this last change serves to do just the opposite.  Without Tyson appearing as much the episode has more of a disjointed feel than the other two.  There was also the inclusion in this episode between the first and second stories of a promo for the third one.  Which, as there are no commercials on PBS, felt terribly awkward and made it even more segmented than it might otherwise have been.  Presumably though, if the stories being covered in the episode interest the viewer, they are likely to watch whether or not the episode works as a single complete entity.

Even if the show does not stand together terribly well, the stories are interesting.  Discussed this time are:  aging and possible aging genes, space elevators, Mayan ruins, and a professor who has discovered that bacteria actually communicate with one another. 

The story on aging and genes focuses on the discovery of various possible “aging” genes through looking first at various people who have lived to ripe old ages and then moving onto mice and various other animals and entities.  There are disturbing implications made throughout the piece about the amount we eat greatly affecting the age we can live to should we have the right genes present in our bodies (it requires a huge amount of calorie restriction that even the scientists in the story find distasteful).  Distilling the story, researchers seem to believe there are a couple of genes that affect aging and not-aging, and various factors, including diet, serve to activate some of these genes.  Where all this will head in the future is anyone’s guess. 

The second story of the evening, and by far the most compelling, is on a hypothetical space elevator, which is actually exactly what it sounds like:  an elevator that could take one from earth to space and back.  This might all be made possible through the use of carbon nanotubes, a substance made of carbon (and, shockingly, in a tube-like structure) that is stronger than steel and weighs far less.  Of course, no carbon nanotube has been made that is longer than 3 centimeters, so constructing a space elevator out of one may not actually be feasible.  Still though, NASA is trying to work out how to construct such an elevator, and has held a contest inviting the whole world to try to come up with the correct vehicle for such an endeavor (the nanotubes would form the shaft up which the vehicle would travel). 

Elevators in space may just be a dream, but satellites are a reality and they’re helping find ancient ruins here on Earth.  The third story shows how satellites are being used to pinpoint Mayan ruins that had heretofore been completely unknown.  Due to the Mayan use of limestone, tress that grew over Mayan cities appear different on satellite images than the surrounding area (the limestone has seeped into the soil).  Armed with detailed maps and a handheld GPS system, William Saturno, the archeologist in question, ventures into dense jungles and can head directly to newly discovered ruins.  It is Saturno’s hope that by doing this he (and others) can piece together more of the history of the Mayan civilization and its sudden collapse. 

Last up is the story of “The Bacteria Whisperer,” Bonnie Bassler, a professor at Princeton.  Bassler is a leading researcher in “quorum sensing” which is how bacteria communicate.  It is through quorum sensing that bacteria determine the numbers of like and different bacteria around them so they can plot their next move (some bacteria glow if there are enough of their compatriots around while others cause disease).  It is Bassler’s current hope that by being able to disrupt bacteria communications disease can be prevented. 

Nova scienceNOW, as I’m sure I’ve said before, manages to move along at a fast enough clip to provide an in-depth look at an issue without getting bogged down.  The in-segment animated diagrams are both amusing and enlightening.  It’s really very much science in a way that is both accessible to the vast majority of the population and still interesting. 

You should of course check your local PBS listings to determine when precisely this episode of Nova scienceNOW in your area, though most places will be showing it Tuesday, January 9th at 8PM (EST). 

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