Best TV Shows for Science as Stranger Than Fiction


Stranger than Fiction: Science as the Greatest of Thought Experiments!

  • The Ascent of Man, with Jacob Bronowski, 1973 13-part science series. Bronowski goes on a personal meditation on the ideas and events in science and technology that lead to our progress, in contrast to other animals that stay relatively unchanged in their behaviors and level of advancement. He goes back to the very beginnings of our humanity, and shows the kinds of progress that are distinctive of our intelligence. Ref: IMDB, Wikipedia.

  • Connections, with James Burke, 1978, 1994, 1997 BBC documentary series over 3 seasons. James Burke gives an alternative view of the history of technology, focusing on its trigger effects (the way one new piece of technology can lead to many other unexpected technologies in the future) and our ultimate inability to predict future technologies. Ref: IMDB, Wikipedia.

  • Cosmos, with Carl Sagan, 1980 science documentary. One of his central ideas is that nature is beautiful itself just as it is; he marvels at evolution, the machinery of life, the huge scope of the universe, the uniformity of physical laws, and so on. He compares our internal machinery to little universes (#2 'One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue'), discusses futuristic spacecrafts (#8 'Travels in Space and Time'), and wonders about alien contact and massive futuristic space-civilizations (#12 'Encyclopedia Galactica'). Ref: Watch it at IMDB, Wikipedia.

  • The Right Stuff, Dir. Philip Kaufman, 1983. Based on the book by Tom Wolfe. Screenplay by Philip Kaufman. Dramatizes the transformation of a few select courageous test pilots into celebrity astronauts for the Mercury missions. The film emphasizes minute details almost like a documentary, including family and political issues. The movie was inspirational to some future astronauts by showing them the possibility of going from test pilots to astronauts. So many little details are fascinating -- some of the best pilots weren't asked to join Mercury (some lacked education, some would have required lengthy background investigations), some political staffers considered other occupations for astronaut candidates, some of the test pilots looked down on the job of astronaut, etc.

    The film was so good at 193 minutes that it made me wish it was another 193 minutes to get into the end of the Mercury missions and the transition to the Gemini missions. In the early parts it has a few slow dead scenes here and there that linger for little reason and Wikipedia notes some dramatic license by Kaufman (the book author, Tom Wolfe, disliked the changes made in the movie), but it won Academy awards for best original score, sound, sound effects, and film editing. Ref: IMDB, Wikipedia.

  • Day One, Dir. Joseph Sargent, 1989. Scientists come together for the Manhattan Project, but secrecy is high in this military led operation. I loved its emphasis on the difficulties of getting scientists to focus! Ref: IMDB, Wikipedia.

  • From the Earth to the Moon, Tom Hanks as Ex. Producer, 1998, HBO 12 part miniseries, 5-DVDs. Based on a book by Andrew Chakin: A Man on the Moon. Titled after the 1865 Jules Verne SF novel. Dramatically reenacts the social and technical details of the NASA moon missions, the building of spacecrafts, the training of astronauts in geology. This series is compulsively watchable and entertaining, a tearjerker in many parts, and altogether uplifting for anyone who loves being a human and loves learning about our greatest hour. Ref: IMDB, Wikipedia.

  • The Elegant Universe, Dir. Cort & McMaster, 2003 NOVA documentary. Based on Brian Greene's book by the same name. Brian Greene provides one of the clearest explanations of the breakdown of general relativity at black holes (I finally understood it!), and after discussing enough of Einstein for his needs, he goes on to elaborate current attempts at a Theory of Everything. He pretends to travel to the minute quantum level as an analogy to quantum concepts, he discusses string theory, and hopes for the possibility of finding a super-symmetry at the most fundamental level of physics. Ref: IMDB, Wikipedia. Misc: Watch The Elegant Universe.

  • Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets, Dir. Joe Ahearne, 2004, TV. This two episode BBC docudrama uses actual science and extrapolative story telling to help the viewer experience our solar system. A fictional NASA crew search for signs of life on Mars and Europa, debate the importance of both human and robotic explorers, and try to combat the negative effects of zero gravity, radiation, space debris, and adverse environments. They voyage on a realistic trajectory, stopping at many logical places and focusing on specific details. The drama was a bit annoying at times (a bit forced, fake, or corny), but it grew on me by the end and had excellent moments. Inspired the TV series Defying Gravity (2009). Ref: IMDB, Wikipedia.

  • Alien Planet, Dir. Pierre de Lespinois, 2005 documentary. Uses all known science to speculate about the plausibility of finding life on an imaginary planet (Darwin IV). It depicts imaginative alien designs, advanced robot sensors, and speculative interviews of scientists. Ref: IMDB, Wikipedia.

  • How William Shatner Changed the World, Dir. Julian Jones, 2005 documentary. An extremely funny and informational documentary on the science and technical impact of Star Trek. It also features Lawrence M. Krauss in a few interviews and hints at some of his ideas from his excellent and very readable book, The Physics of Star Trek. Ref: IMDB, Wikipedia.

  • The Universe, 2007-2010, History Channel science documentary. A five season TV series on a plethora of science topics with high quality CGI and many interviews of scientists. Includes a few episodes that relate to common SF questions about time travel, space probes, teleportation, anti-gravity, space weapons, apocalyptic scenarios, Earth without a moon, space vacations, space hotels, parallel universes, alien life, SETI, etc. Most of the episodes are on cosmology beginning from our solar system and working out into deep space. Ref: IMDB, Wikipedia.

  • Visions of the Future, 2007, BBC documentary, aired on the Science Channel. A three hour series by Michio Kaku (Home Page, Wikipedia). Based on his science fiction book, Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century. He speculates on the three fields of science he expects to advance the most in the future: the computer revolution, the biomolecular revolution, and the quantum revolution. He discusses the future of scientific research and uses much of known science to make his predictions. But watch out, he goes into places SF rarely goes! He takes a positive spin on genetic progress and he portrays science as a good influence on us! Ref: IMDB. Misc: BBC Page, Book Review of Visions.

  • When We Left Earth, 2008, Discovery Channel TV Series (6 episodes). Narrated by Gary Sinise. Produced by Richard Dale and Bill Howard. Well paced series spanning most of the history of NASA. The first episode goes along perfectly with the movie "The Right Stuff" and gives similar details of the Mercury project (without the dramatic licence taken in the movie). The second episode covers the important Gemini project in preparation for landing on the moon, and the third part is dedicated to the Apollo project up to Apollo 11.

    One of my favorite episodes was the jam packed fourth part, titled "The Explorers", which overviews the science done in the later Apollo missions and the rarely mentioned Skylab. The last two episodes focus on the reusable shuttle, the Hubble missions, and the construction of the ISS (when NASA was doing things seemingly right out of SF, such as flying around in space on jet packs or unpacking Hubble from the NASA shuttle). The value of the documentary is amplified by its partnership with NASA, so the DVD has over 4 hours of original NASA films and other footage. The documentary series is an excellent NASA gap filler, going along well with the movie "Apollo 13" and the HBO series "From the Earth to the Moon". Ref: IMDB, Wikipedia.

  • Sci Fi Science: Physics of the Impossible, 2009-2010, TV. A 12 episode series by Michio Kaku (Home Page, Wikipedia) airing on the Science Channel. Based on his book, Physics of the Impossible. He speculates on ways to use science to construct intelligent robots, starships, force fields, warp drives, and light sabres. Others are on things like becoming a superhero or traveling to parallel universes. At the end of each episode he delivers his idea to a small SF audience to get feedback. Ref: IMDB. Misc: Science Channel Page.

  • Through the Wormhole (2010-2011), Science Channel documentary series. Hosted and narrated by Morgan Freeman. The purpose of this documentary is to ask big questions that seem philosophical, mysterious, or possibly like science fiction. The documentary covers many contemporary topics that weren't known in the older classic documentaries. For example, the first episode has discussion on Garrett Lisi's paper on the E8 Lie group and other scientists interested in M theory and multiverses. Some episodes discuss the Higgs field, dark matter, SETI, black holes, time travel, quantum mechanics, consciousness, free will, neuroscience, parallel universes, aliens, etc. The bulk of each episode has many interviews of top scientists, discussions of the most recent research, and an emphasis on the ways actual science can address the speculative or imaginative questions of each episode.

    I've seen the first two discs of season one and find it very interesting. My only gripes are minor: I prefer science documentaries hosted with a scientist or science reporter because it personalizes the core content that can otherwise quickly become repetitive from other documentaries (and avoids little breezy inaccuracies that slip past a "talking head" narrator at the beginning and ending parts). Ref: IMDB, Wikipedia.