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TV Review: Nova scienceNOW – Season 2, Episode 5

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Sadly, after several reviews in which I said that Nova scienceNOW was a good, fun show, this week’s episode leaves me quite disappointed. Certainly the humor is still there and Neil deGrasse Tyson holds everything together, but the stories — particularly the first one — are not as compelling as they ought to be.

The first story is all about dinosaurs, mainly T-Rex’s, and paleobiologist Mary Schweitzer, who has managed to find soft tissue remains of dinosaurs. This is a pretty unbelievable feat considering that they died off tens of millions of years ago. She’s even found red blood cells. It is an incredible story, but from the moment it starts, two things are apparent: 1) Schweitzer does not have a very strong on-camera presence, and 2) they’re going to show a clip from Jurassic Park. The first of these things is easily forgiven. She’s doing incredible work and she’s the only one doing it, and it is difficult to engage with her and the story because of it, but it is understandable and only mildly disturbing. The second is a far, far larger problem.

It takes absolutely forever for the Jurassic Park clip to be used. In fact, it takes so long that it proves a huge distraction. I just kept thinking to myself, “Where’s the clip? Why haven’t the shown the clip? They haven’t even mentioned that it’s just like Jurassic Park, why not? Was the clip too expensive?” And then, wham! It appears, but not to great effect. In the end, this story is so poorly constructed that Jurassic Park would prove far more useful as an opening to the story and a “what if we could do it” then sticking the clip in more than halfway through. The next three stories are more interesting and well constructed, but by that point it almost feels too late.

Story number two is on epigenetics. Genes can either be turned on or off, depending on outside influences to them, and turning them on or off creates huge differences in who we are, and who healthy we are. In fact, it seems that many of these ons and offs can be passed from mother to child, in mice they certainly can be. Simply by feeding a mother mouse certain types of food, her genetically identical offspring can either be small and healthy or huge and unhealthy. Epigenetics are also at work currently in certain cancer treatments that are proving useful. That is a fascinating story.

Did you know that there is a sculpture on the CIA’s grounds that is a code that even they cannot crack? Well, there is and they cannot. It was constructed by James Sanborn, with a little help from an ex-head of Cryptography for the CIA. The show goes into the history of cryptography, and teaches a couple of basic cryptography techniques. The even finish the story with a little coded message of their own. Solve it and you could win a prize.

This is the kind of story the show does best. It is light, airy, has a good character behind it, and is interesting. It may not be strong enough to be the lead story for the episode, but it is a welcome addition.

Last up is the profile; this time around it is about Arlie Petters. Petters grew up poor in Belize, and is now one of the most best researchers in the field of gravitational lensing in the world. More than just that though, Petters is doing his best to aid Belize however he can, including building an institute to help educate children in science and math. The story is a solid conclusion to the episode, one that is uplifting and provides hope for the future.

And that is this week’s episode of Nova scienceNOW. What could be a really good episode is marred by a weak, poorly told lead story. There are interesting elements to it, and were it re-cut the story could truly shine, but as it stands, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth for the rest of the episode.

Nova scienceNOW airs Tuesday, July 24 at 8:00pm, but check your local listings anyway to make sure.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.
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