Traditionally speaking, television in the summer is filled with reality shows, burn-offs of series that failed, and lots and lots of repeats. Cable has slowly started to change the game, launching lots of original scripted series over the summer. However, even many of those feel like they have a light-hearted air about them. It should come as no surprise, perhaps, then that when PBS has a summer television series, it too is a relatively light affair ("light" in PBS terms anyway). On June 30th, PBS's Nova scienceNOW is returning for its fourth season, and Neil deGrasse Tyson is retaining hosting duties.
Watching this season's premiere, the show seems to have undergone no major changes from last year to this, which, rather than being seen as a negative, this falls much more into the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" category. The hour-long show is still divided into four separate stories, one of which is a biographical piece.
What the show really has going for it though is that it is fun. Every story every week is made in an extremely accessible fashion. Segments often begin with an amusing green screen introduction — in the premiere viewers are treated to Tyson acting out pieces of Raiders of the Lost Ark and singing in various locales. It may just be my imagination, but the introductions seem expanded from previous seasons, but, even if they're not, they still do set a wonderful tone for the show.
As for the stories themselves in the premiere, one learns about making synthetic diamonds, using computers to control a singer's pitch, an examination of the trail investigators followed in tracking down the terrorist(s) behind the 2001 anthrax attacks, and a profile of Luis von Ahn, the genius professor who created all those ridiculous type-the-word-when-signing-up-for-this-so-that-we-know-that-you're-a-person-and-not-a-computer-things (they're called Captchas and Recaptchas).
One of the very impressive things about scienceNOW is that the show is not only able to handle a lighter-side story like Auto-Tune controlling a singer's pitch and have a breezy feel as a whole to it, but that it can quickly switch gears and examine something as serious as the 2001 anthrax attacks. The piece is, clearly, an incredibly serious one, and the show handles it with the gravitas that such a piece requires. scienceNOW explores the investigation from the point of view of the scientists involved, examining exactly how it was determined where the anthrax came from, something that required a lot of thinking and cutting-edge tests. The story is, certainly, far less light than the rest of the show, but it still meshes with that which surrounds it.
As I've done since the show's second season, I now must point out the real reason the show is as much fun as it is — Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, is the type of person I always prayed would teach my college science classes — he is not only hysterically funny, but he helps the average person approach science in a wholly accessible and interesting way. I may question is choice of vests, but even those show that he is simply having fun, and making science fun. Really, it is the entire production team that deserves credit for making what could otherwise be rather dry incredibly enjoyable.
If my professors had made science one-fourth as fun as it is in Nova scienceNOW, maybe I'd have put my bachelor's degree to better use than simply reviewing science-based shows.