Science can be fun. At least, that's the message delivered by Nova scienceNOW, the spin-off of Nova that is about to enter its third season this week on PBS. Hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the series focuses on four short pieces over the course of its hour-long runtime as opposed to a single story as its sibling series does. The series sports engaging graphics and the topics explored are made very accessible.
Though Nova scienceNOW delves into serious topics (a story on Alzheimer's appears in the third season premiere), the show tends to opt for a lighter, more easygoing feel. The show walks the very fine line between minimizing the scientific areas it explores and getting too deeply into the stories. It might be a difficult tightrope to walk, but one the series does exceedingly well.
This third season opens with a story on “Dark Matter,” a substance which, apparently, is terribly difficult to define and even harder to understand. The basic idea of it is that if the law of gravity as we define it is accurate, there has to be about five times more “stuff” in the universe than we can see. Scientists can't see it (though they're trying desperately to do so), but they can see where it is due to the way it bends light. So despite not being visible, maps of where it is exist. It may not be the easiest of things to understand (and the story goes into far more depth than I do), but between the graphics, voice-over, and interviews with scientists, everything is brought down to a level where the average person can understand the basic concepts behind dark matter.
One of the more impressive aspects of this story is the fact that Nova scienceNOW managed to go out and find scientists to discuss the topic who are truly engaging. It is possible that they're just creatively edited, but I tend to believe the former, not the latter. Essentially, for this story, scienceNOW went out and found rock star-like scientists to discuss the topic, and their charisma and intelligibility carries the day.
For the “profile” story in the second episode this season (there is one in every episode), the series went beyond simply finding a “rock star-like” scientist, they went out and actually did a story on a scientist who just also happens to be a rock star (okay, semi-star). Though this profile story was less engaging than the one in the premiere (which deals with a man who tries to discern real from doctored photos), it clearly shows the aesthetic the series is trying to achieve. Nova scienceNOW is wholly interested in making science engaging, accessible, and fun for everyone.
The first two episodes this season are exceedingly enjoyable to watch. While the series moves at a brisk pace, it never feels overly rushed or hurried. The one story in the first two episodes on which more time could have been spent is the final one in the premiere, which is on Sir Francis Galton. It discusses Galton trying to prove that the masses were ignorant and therefore shouldn't be allowed to make important decisions for society as a whole (i.e., vote). The story is done in truly brilliant fashion; it is a combination of live-action and animation and sung by one of the correspondents with other present-day people helping him out from time to time. As it is a song, and assuredly a difficult story to produce, it is, relatively speaking, brief. It isn't rushed, but watching it was such a great experience that I wanted it to last longer.
Though all the stories are fun, one other one to look out for is the one on faking Van Gogh's paintings. Though in a similar vein to the one on doctoring photos, it presents a great look at how past meets present and art meets science.
Heading into its third season, PBS has placed Nova scienceNOW in its own time slot on Wednesday evenings, rather than simply slotting it into Nova Tuesday night from time to time. It is certainly a show of faith and confidence in scienceNOW that the series richly deserves. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a perfect host for the series; he is the exact right mix between incredibly intelligent and completely engaging (which is to say that he is both).
Nova scienceNOW's third season premieres Wednesday June 25 at 9pm on PBS stations, though I highly encourage you to check your local listings.