Science on Television : Ask a ScienceBlogs Reader

i-75fa6f7cebb4145668724f37f5a52b36-steve_icon_medium.jpg Growing up it seemed like the only science on television was Mr. Wizard, Nova, and Star Trek (ok ok ... it's fiction but most scientists love star trek). Now there are a number of channels that regularly feature science shows. National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, the Science Channel, Discovery Health, the Learning Channel, and even the History Channel. There are probably even a few more I don't even know about. It's great!

However, It seems like 90% of these 'science' shows are actually engineering shows or something else sciency but not quite science. Usually they build stuff and see if it works. I can understand why this would be the case since building stuff with a group of people is a lot more active and exciting to watch than a scientist sitting around and thinking or talking at a table with other scientists. But there really does have to be a way of making everyday science more entertaining for the television watching population.

If you could be in charge of a new program on the channel of your choice and had an unlimited budget what kind of show would you create?

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If it was on broadcast HDTV, I'd do a sci-art magazine show. If it was a web TV show I'd do a tagged vodcast on brain science, of course. :) Interviews but remixed with cultural commentary and relevant music to make it less dry. I would also like to do a reality show, behind the scenes at conferences. Give them some drama!

Were you thinking of me when you asked this? hehe

I'd turn the "Walking With..." concept (with slightly better factual accuracy) into a weekly series, with more "how do we know" (get the head start on those creationist-trained kids from that museum) factual support either as interstitials or as an epilogue. And not limit it to just dinosaurs; there's a LOT more (extinct) animals out there than just the few shown in the main 3 series and the Nigel Martin and Caveman stuff.

For the DVDs, the Walking series did have some good stuff with interviews and fossil discussions and the like, but they rarely showed that in full on TV, just quick cuts.

Granted, having a strong narrator helps immensely. The recent "The Next Chapter" remake (same CGI, new narration and interviews) on Discovery sucked. The science updates were fine and the new interviews quite good.

The new narration was as boring as the worst of the crap we had back in high school (20 years ago for me now).

I guess what we really need is more on the evidence and on the process - "how do we know" indeed.

One of the best shows out there was the one on "Snowball Earth", the theory of some that the earth was once (about 400+ million years ago) completely covered in ice.

Even if in the end, that theory is finally disproved (and so we were *mostly* covered in ice but not completely), what was critical about that show was how beautifully it talked about the *process* by which a scientific consensus is reached.

Every discipline of science got to have their say, their suspicion that something might not be right, and new tests and research were discussed that would prove the nay-sayers wrong or prove the main theorist wrong, and all of these were discussed, from geology through climatology and finally biology (as it was shown that algae grow quite well under the Antarctic ice sheets). Papers, conferences, how one constructs an "experiment" when dealing with the historical sciences, it was all there. The subject was cool (literally), but the way it showed the process was absolutely fantastic.

We need more of that - that science is not just facts and "some body's clever idea", but that it is a process and that it is a process anybody can understand even if they choose not to do it so thoroughly themselves.

"How do we know" indeed. Those kids were being brainwashed into thinking we can't explain the process to them. That documentary did it brilliantly.

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 27 Mar 2008 #permalink

Correction on Snowball Earth - the one under discussion was about 635 million years ago.

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 27 Mar 2008 #permalink

Hi Steve,

Wikipedia on:
Engineering "... the discipline and profession of applying scientific knowledge ..."
- broadest sense "... any systematic knowledge or practice ...";
- restricted sense "... acquiring knowledge based on the scientific method, as well as to the organized body of knowledge gained through such research ..."

The last word 'research' would, in many cases, seem to require engineering?
I do not mind the engineering aspects.
The computers we use are largely the result of computer engineering as well as computer science.
The benefit of knowledge without application would seem to be of limited value?

I don't know whether this would work, but one kind of science show that's never been done is a drama with scientists as the main protagonists, who actually behave like scientists.

Since real science progresses at a much slower pace than science typically does in fiction, make that a part of your story. David Lynch started working on Twin Peaks, IIRC, when he learned that the average murder investigation lasts two years. So he made a show where instead of one murder a week, the entire series is a single murder investigation. You could make a series where an entire season is one physics experiment (results: inconclusive), or one paleontological field expedition that ultimately turns up some shrew teeth.

The drama would come from the usual soap-opera stuff: romance, ambition, ethics, money (and lack thereof). But the characters would deal with it (or not deal with it) using rational, evidence-based thinking. Something like House, but with a longer story arc, and involving multiple rational-materialist characters.

You would need really good writers to pull something like this off, but since you've given me an unlimited budget, I'm going to blow it on writer salaries.

Nova on PBS has a lot of interesting epsidoes. It is science for the masses rather than an in depth look at any particular field or subject. It is also only an hour an week.

You are right to lament the lack of a serious science channel on TV. Science is full of incredible visual imagery and interesting stories of exploration and discovery. Alas, filming football games and cop dramas is a lot easier and more lucrative.

I completely agree with the lack of "real" science on TV at the moment. Unfortunately, it stems from the channels' need to make money from advertising, and thus broadcast films that are interesting to as many people as possible. So while there are all sorts of visually amazing opportunities in the world of science, commissioning editors at the networks are under pressure to make everything entertaining, to attract viewers.

Questions we might find intrinsically interesting and intriguing have to be diluted and refomatted to appeal to a wider range of people. And that's when we can persuade commissioners of an intrinsic interest! Most of the time it's all about getting as many car-races and explosions into the hour as possible - since "that's what excites the viewers"...despite it not really being the case! Additionally, it only seems to be the cosmology and geology focussed shows that rate well. A show on "What's Sexy", whilst a great topic and beautiful film, was the worst rating film in that series, completely beaten in the ratings by "Birth of the Earth", "Death of the Sun", "Volcano Alert" - and that's all within the same series!

AS for what I'd do with unlimited money to make a series. Go for the high-end, blue chip stuff, a la Planet Earth/Blue Planet, but about a different area of science every week. Pitch it at the 8pm Sunday evening slot, where people don't want to think, just to wonder at how incredible our world and our universe truly are. Inspire that wonder in people through beautiful or unusual photography of "science in action", and hopefully more people will start to understand what it is that drives people to keep doing science in the first place.

By Colin Buck (not verified) on 28 Mar 2008 #permalink

Hi Steve,

Literature would be of limited value if only the author or a select few were literate.

As it is public education allows for many to read, but sometimes all too few do.

Thus literature needs the writer, the editor and the reader just as the scientist, the engineer and the consumer are needed, even in science shows.

I'd like to see a weekly "science magazine" type show. Have a popular generalist host -- someone like James Burke of "Connections" fame. Then perhaps regular subject hosts in the major science fields -- physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, earth sciences, paleontology/archeology. Each week there'd be three 15 minute segments, covering various aspects of three of those fields (rotating the fields from week to week), trying to have the three segments relate to each other in some way. Then end with the show host and the subject hosts discussing the relationships and the possibilities for new research.

I hate hate hate (hate) Animal Planet. That would be a really good channel if they stuck to actual science rather than doing the whole "animal reality show" crap. That's why I call it "E! for Animals". What also got on my nerves was a show where they took a tiger from Asia and implanted it on the African savannah to see if it could adapt. Why would they do that???

Props to BBC and Planet Earth.

What about a survivor-type reality show for grad students? Pick a bunch of grad students in their last year, track their thesis-writing experience, and ultimately give one of them a job at the end.

1) Rampant nudity,
2) Intemperate alcohol,
3) Flash quizzes;
4) Milgram-Dyson punishment box,
5) Tesla coils.

Call it No Child Left Behind. Think of it as Head Start that works.

You forgot Cosmos. Man, that was an awesome show. Some of the science is, of course, outdated, but I'll never forget his explanation of evolution, set to Vangelis's "Alpha," or the toilet paper roll googol.