Growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, two science shows were to me a cut above — Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” and James Burke’s “Connections.” Sagan brought a passion, gravitas, and imagination to translating physics and astronomy, while Burke brought excitement, quirky charm, and amazing stories to his histories of inventions.
For years, it seemed these two shows might only be matched sporadically by the occasional BBC or PBS foray. But things have brightened considerably over the past decade, as two remarkable shows have blossomed into full-fledged movements among science geeks, especially those under 20 and, most importantly, for kids.
The first is the often jaw-dropping, always-entertaining, and consistently risk-taking science show “Mythbusters,” hosted mainly by the intrepid Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman. In production for 10 years now, the show has really gained a head of steam over the last half-decade to become a full-fledged phenomenon, spawning a live show headlined by the two hosts, a museum tour beginning this year, and a legion following on the Discovery Channel and other television distributors worldwide. Episodes usually feature two teams of Mythbusters — the original hosts on one, three sidekicks on the other — busting myths that can be addressed via hypothesis testing. Some myths are old — Archimedes’ Solar Ray, anyone, or a Greek torpedo — while others are modern (like, Do we really need to turn off our cell phones on planes? Answer: Myth.)
The second show is the more recently developed series “Through the Wormhole,” hosted by Morgan Freeman and broadcast on the Science Channel. This beautifully produced series tackles a particular fundamental question each episode — things like, “Is There a Creator?” or “What Are We Really Made Of?” — often grounded in a story ostensibly drawn from Freeman’s youth.
I was able to see “The Mythbusters” live show this past weekend in Hartford, CT. Adam and Jamie are currently on a North American tour. The two boys I took along — my son and his friend — were nearly overcome with joy upon seeing their science heroes in-person, and the show exceeded even their high expectations. Experiments done live involved one host being suspended over the stage with only the friction between the pages of two interleaved phone books preventing his fall; hilarious high-speed camera sessions with audience members; and a bicycle-based pump race with a bitter dousing as the loser’s ultimate shame. It was great to see one shy 9th grade boy come on stage; when he stated his favorite subject was science, he received a big round of applause. The show was sold out, and Adam and Jamie received a standing ovation at the end.
“Through the Wormhole” is more sedate as a show, but profound in many spots. It often gives a nod to Sagan’s “Cosmos” through references, but updates his show with more recent physics and a different structure, as well as superb graphics and interesting interviews with modern scientists. Each episode is a cogitation on a topic, and the slower pace and deeper consideration is a welcome respite from the frantic pace of most other media outlets.
It’s great to see science heroes in our midst once again — quirky, inspiring, intrepid, and entertaining people with a passion for translating science to the masses, and doing so spectacularly well.
Thank you, Adam, Jamie, and Morgan.
(Hat tip to EJ, for the recommendation to see Mythbusters live — and for making it in time for me to get good tickets to a sold out show.)