Sitting down to watch the fourth episode of the second season of Nova scienceNOW I'm mainly struck by one thought: why have they only put out four episodes nearly nine months into their second season? They show is incredibly accessible and fun to watch. It takes some difficult scientific ideas and concepts and makes them understandable without ever making the viewer feel as though the concepts have been dumbed down. This episode's four stories are on: sleep and memory, CERN's Large Hadron Collider, a concept known as emergence, and a profile on archeologist Julie Schablitsky.
During my freshman year in college, I spent hours playing multiplayer Descent. It got to the point where every time I closed my eyes I could see the ships and levels and bonuses and problems. Apparently that's totally normal, though the example used in the episode of Nova scienceNOW is Tetris. Scientists in different labs around the country are looking into why exactly we sleep, and many (building from experiments performed on insects, animals, and humans) have arrived at the conclusion that when we sleep our mind processes what happened during the day and learns from it.
This is to say that if you can't pass the fifth level on Tetris one day, go to sleep, and if you try again in the morning you very well may be able to (this strategy never led me to any victories in Descent, but maybe it will for you). One of the specific examples given in the episode is with rats going through a maze. These rats have wires going into their brain, so that their thoughts can be mapped out. After running a rat through a maze to find chocolate syrup several times in a day, the rat learns about the maze and certain synapses fire in a certain order in certain parts of the maze. When the rat sleeps, the synapses fire in the same order, the rat is thinking his way through the maze. And, apparently, his visual cortex is active too; he's seeing the maze again. It's a great way to lead off the episode, because sleep, and the lack thereof, is something with which we can all associate.
The second story does not have the same sort of hook; it is all about CERN and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). CERN is the international particle physics lab, and this collider throws protons into each other at high speed in order to see what happens. We know that protons are made up of smaller things, and the collider will help show what exactly those things are. While this story is told in an understandable fashion, it fails to be as interesting as the previous story — it is, much more, a story for scientists. It doesn't have the accessibility of the sleep story.
Luckily, the third story is again wonderfully interesting. It is on a concept known as "emergence." The story starts by looking at flocks of birds and schools of fish, and how each member of the group seems to know what the other member of the group is going to do; how they move with such beauty and grace that it seems as though it is calculated in advance. Turns out, it is not. There are very simple rules that govern each individual bird's movement, things like maintain a constant distance from the other birds, avoid predators, and things like that. When all the birds in a flock follow these same rules, what emerges are the movements of flocks that we are used to seeing. People in crowds exhibit the exact same patterns of behavior, too. And, the story tells us, it's possible that this is all actually how life on Earth began. This is really the brilliance of the show — Nova scienceNOW did a story on something that virtually everyone sees and marvels at, the way flocks of birds and school of fish move, and found people to talk about it in an easy to understand way, and even is able to paint a bigger picture about humanity as a whole.
The last story for the episode is the traditional profile that Nova scienceNOW always includes, and it is far better here in the last position in the episode than in the third as it was early in the season. Up this time is Julie Schablitsky who explores the Old West and unravels myth from fact. She's high energy, fun, and is currently working on the history of the Chinese laborers who came to this country, built railroads, and did other difficult jobs. It is a little awkward to see this Caucasian woman talk about "telling the story" of Chinese people in the United States, and happily the episode doesn't linger there for long before talking about the famous Donner party. Schablitsky was part of a group that helped separate fact from fiction and showed that only very few members of the group resorted to cannibalism and only did so as a last resort.
As always, holding the show together is Neil deGrasse Tyson, who even does the interviews and gets to do the heavy lifting in the first story. He is the only reason why the series works as well as it does, otherwise it would be just a bunch of unconnected pieces. I am quite sure that I have said this before, but his personality is incredibly engrossing, and a large reason why Nova scienceNOW is as much fun as it is. If only the story on CERN and the LHC had used Tyson it may have proved more interesting.
Nova scienceNOW airs Tuesday, July 10 at 9pm, but, please do check your local listings rather than just accepting my word for it.