Through the Wormhole: Science Education for the Twenty-First Century

As humans, we initially find ourselves restricted to the domain of the medium-sized world. Here, our senses enable us to recognize medium-sized objects, moving at medium-ranged speeds, within the medium-scaled array of the visible light spectrum. But our intuitions about reality that have helped guide us through the medium-sized world quickly become antiquated when we begin to investigate the amazingly large or the impossibly small. From quasars to quarks, the Universe seems absolutely alien when we leave the safe and comfy confines of the medium-sized world, thus wandering down the uncharted path of discovery.

Even though science provides mankind with a way to see behind the curtains, the road towards scientific discovery hasn’t always been pleasant for the scientist or the public. We don’t have to look far back in time to find examples of individuals who have either been reprimanded for their willingness to discover or have chosen to use the fruits of science for less than noble causes. But we don’t define an army by its weakest soldier, nor should we define the pursuit of scientific knowledge by its greatest tragedies. We live in an age formed by great thinkers who were celebrated instead of punished for their discoveries, who used their discoveries for the greater good instead of the most despicable evil, and thus whose legacies live on through the ages. In awe of their great triumphs, it seems only natural to champion these intellectual heroes and hopefully inspire the next generation of scientific thinkers.

Physicist Niels Bohr memorialized on the 500 Danish Kroner
Physicist Niels Bohr memorialized on the 500 Danish Kroner

In the pursuit to pay homage to the great scientists of the past and pass the torch to the next generation, countless science television programs have sprouted up over the years. In general, staying afloat in the competitive sea of television has been somewhat of a challenge for most science shows because frankly, the prospect of educating one’s self while watching TV seems to be an activity many people simply don’t care to engage in. To this type of audience, television serves as an oasis of pure and often thoughtless entertainment, where one can get lost in the lives of the Kardashians or perhaps discover who really is the father. After realizing the jaded directive many people have with respect to educational television, some science shows have tried to keep up with the times and focus more on entertainment value in order to reel in viewers.

Bill Nye the Science GuyAlthough this strategy has worked for some shows created for children, and even though your favorite day in elementary school science class might have been watching Bill Nye the Science Guy, his kooky antics aren’t nearly as effective on adults. Unfortunately, creating educational science programs for adults that try too hard to “make science fun” often results in an amateur product, alienating would-be viewers from both higher and lower educational backgrounds.

So then, what is the right formula for a successful science program marketed towards adults? Is it simply to present the most technical scientific information in a monotonous and robotic fashion? Of course not. Is it to dumb down concepts and focus more on entertainment value? Not likely. Instead, a science program works when it has several balanced components, only one of which needs to be actual scientific information.

Which clip below do you, the viewer, find more compelling and entertaining?

Even though this clip is ancient and somewhat suspiciously unsettling, most people probably imagine something similar to this when asked to think about a traditional science video. It is true that this clip demonstrates a useful scientific principle, but the lifeless puppet of science on the screen is nevertheless more effective as a pungent sleep-aid substitute. The dreary music adds to this feeling of bland lifelessness, acting as a spontaneous yawn generator while making the viewer feel as though he or she is being held hostage in high school chemistry class all over again. Overall, it’s clear that no one is getting excited about a science video or science show embodying this type of mood.

What is it about this second video that draws in your attention, captivates your mind, and causes you to silently work through the beautiful analogy shown? In addition to solid science, we get quality editing, enticing special effects, and a strong analogy to both drive the point home as well as entertain. The clip has the viewer picture black holes twisting and churning about one another in a way comparable to the waltzing dancers. Thus, one is left with an association between two seemingly unrelated things. This approach allows the viewer to relate that which is familiar—two people seductively engaged in a predictable pattern of dance—to that which is foreign—the mysterious nature of the black hole. The viewer inevitably begins to feel comfortably immersed into an entertaining television program, a tactic that almost makes one forget that they are learning about science.

Through The Wormhole- Morgan FreemanScience Channel’s Emmy nominated and record-breaking series Through the Wormhole, hosted by Morgan Freeman, has become a cult-classic, residing in the upper echelon of science documentaries next to Cosmos and Nova. It has become such a popular series because it gives the viewer more than is expected from an educational science program, while at the same time fulfilling one’s subconscious need for multiple dimensions of entertainment. Instead of a science program similar in scope to a college physics lecture, Through the Wormhole provides welcomed aesthetic context, unique thought experiments, and world renowned science educators and researchers that enhance the learning experience while also serving to keep the viewer’s interest peaked. Further, the colorful ensembles of imagery accompanying any given scene aid in the comprehension of the concept while providing a bountiful visual feast upon which one’s eyes can dine. To take this show to the next level, we get to hear the distinctively soothing voice of none other than the legendary Morgan Freeman, who narrates the show and unveils a real and unencumbered passion for the science itself, rendering the viewer utterly helpless to his signature charm.

Some of the most intriguing topics—according to this author—covered so far in the series include:

“What Happened Before the Beginning?” -Season 1, Episode 4

“Is There an Edge to the Universe?” -Season 2, Episode 2

“Did We Invent God?” -Season 3, Episode 10

As evidenced by the titles of these three episodes, it’s obvious that the series is not afraid to explore controversial and highly contested topics. By investigating the fringe areas of science and thus surpassing the stationary subjects covered in ordinary academic settings—such as static electricity or internal combustion—Through the Wormhole exposes the viewer to many of the unsolved problems plaguing contemporary scientists. The series purposely highlights these highly contested topics, allowing each viewer to weigh the pros and cons offered by the diverging perspectives. This not only adds to the entertainment value, it also strategically ends up forcing the viewer to form an opinion on the subject in question, and hopefully come back for more.

Interestingly, roughly a quarter of all the episodes that have aired thus far cover to some degree the extremely controversial and polarizing topic of religion. And what makes for good television? Good ol’ fashioned controversy does. As for his views on the topic covered in the tenth episode of season three, Freeman makes it very clear that his vote is an affirmative one. Even after playing God himself in Bruce Almighty, Morgan Freeman has made his opposing religious identity no secret to the public.

Whether you agree with his take on religion or not, you have to admit the man has charisma, a crucial quality often found lacking in many science programs that never see a second season. This plays a huge role in whether or not a viewer will return for a second viewing or more.

Creating a television show about science isn’t that difficult, the TV guide is flooded with them. The reason this series has proven to be a success is because it gives the viewer much more than just scientific lecturing. By exploring controversial topics, providing the viewer with imaginative and novel ways of understanding complex ideas, and thus taking educational television into the twenty-first century, Through the Wormhole has proven itself to be a high caliber series. Finally, the fact that we get to see a true Hollywood legend to the likes of Morgan Freeman get behind the program and show true passion for the subject matter, well that just makes for great television.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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30 Comments

  1. Liz Watkins

    Great subject. I haven’t watch it yet, but it sounds informative and entertaining. Two things that are hard to put successfully together sometimes! Morgan Freeman speaking is always a plus for any informative program.

    • Danny Cox

      Hey Liz, thanks for reading and taking the time to help edit! As far as science television goes, I would put this show up next to pretty much anything, especially since it explores such controversial topics. It really has the whole package, and as you say, Morgan Freeman can only add to the entertainment value.

  2. The more we learn, the more questions we have. And I am very convinced what I learn in school about science will be completely different then what my children learn.

    • Danny Cox

      I wouldn’t expect everything to be different. I imagine that some things most assuredly will change – our understanding of the quantum world and other high level physics will likely change soon, but I don’t expect the scientific explanations regarding the water cycle or tectonic plates are going to experience radical paradigm shifts.

      Nevertheless, the great thing about science is that it has a self-correcting mechanism: as more data is compiled, a more precise (and sometimes completely different) explanation can be given. I suppose that I find solace is this notion, and I don’t really think that the fine-tuning or changing of certain scientific explanations calls for discouragement.

    • Johnna Keys
      0

      Oh really? I guess your kids won’t be learning about how water is formed of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule, or that it boils at 100 C or freezes at 0 C.

      Perhaps they will be learning that 1+1 does not equal 2 or that the lungs in the human respiratory system don’t hold air. Maybe they will even learn that the speed of light isn’t 299,792,458 meters per second etc.

  3. Craig Reeves
    0

    I watched a clip of this show about elephants being self-aware – and again and again during a short clip religion is thrust into a so-called science show.

    I would NEVER watch this show with all this religious garbage cluttering the show.

    • Danny Cox

      I guess I am not really sure if you meant that there is too much religion being thrust into the show (when there should be none) or that the show is being overly critical of religion (when there should be no criticism of religion at all). I am also not sure why the self-aware elephant clip has offended you so. I rather enjoyed that one.

      I personally think the show is shining a critical eye towards religion, but I don’t at all think that this is a bad thing. I think that we should be open and willing to discuss, defend, and discard our beliefs in a civil way when a certain belief is met with opposing claims, explanations, or data in general.

      The problem is that most people aren’t talking about the same thing when debates about religion occur, even when they are using the same words – God, faith, heaven, etc. Even the word “religion” doesn’t have a definite context, there are many different accounts of where the line between religion and ideology is drawn. This is why it is important (in my opinion) to be willing to discuss things with other people. This inevitably will either strengthen your beliefs or render them obsolete.

      I would recommend that you watch another episode since you appear to have picked up a strikingly different message from the show than I did.

    • The topic of the episode was about the psychology of belief in religion. The anthropological and psychological study of the theistic phenomenon in humans is a scientific endeavor. Religion is a huge part of human history, and science can shed some light on why that is. Saying that clip was “religious garbage” is like saying census data of religious affiliation is too, or that the statement, “Religion exists,” is as well.

      • Danny Cox

        Well said. Striving towards understanding the past and how it brought us to the present is absolutely a useful endeavor. Although an increasing number of people now-a-days take a hostile attitude towards religion, we still need to understand its role in history.

    • i understand the frustration some people have regarding religion, but this show acts not so much like a bridge as a scientific philosophy show. they dare to ask questions such as is there actually a god, or intelligent design, or afterlife. it never gives you one way or the other, just different science ideas to make you think.

      • Danny Cox

        Exactly! some people have trouble with the notion that it is OK to ask a question, see what the current ideas are as far as answering it, and then say “well, we don’t really know the answer, but maybe it’s (blank).” By the way, philosophy of science is great, just gonna put that out there.

  4. WhiteTale
    0

    Most science programs present what the producers want to push as facts. With this show there are many opinions from many well represented people, and seldom if ever a theory is taken for fact or kicked to the curb.

    • Danny Cox

      Hi, thanks for your insightful comment. I definitely agree that Through the Wormhole offers a wide variety of opinions when a controversial subject is being analyzed.

      This, to me, is another great thing about the show – by providing multiple perspectives and thus letting the viewer know that the jury is still out, one can develop an informed opinion on the subject that takes into account the opposition.

    • Lulu Caro
      0

      agreed. and in my circle of hard atheist friends, they’ve damned it beyond measure and refuse to watch it because it takes the objective stance: What if God is real?

      and I’m suddenly a “christian apologist” for defending Through the Wormhole.

      my hard atheist friends don’t always think things thru.

      • Danny Cox

        I find it both strange and interesting that your “hard atheist friends” have damned the show, especially since Morgan Freeman has been so public about his aversion towards religion. In my eyes the show is being pretty critical towards religion.

        Just because Through the Wormhole mentions God, or asks “did God start evolution” – or some similar question – doesn’t mean that they are acting as christian apologists (and neither are you for defending the show).

        I think that instead of using the Richard Dawkins method towards religious fundamentalists – i.e. yell at them and call them stupid – we can take the method used by Socrates – i.e. ask questions and get the respondent to fall into traps and defeat themselves.

        By taking a civil and non-militant approach, we can actually have conversations with people, not to mention that it is much harder to admit when you are wrong (even if you realize it inside your head) when someone is yelling at your face.

  5. Not only is the science in the videos evolving, but the methods used to market them as well! It’s amazing to see the difference over time in how information is relayed. Fun read.

    • Danny Cox

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, thanks for reading! It is pretty amazing how the flow of information in general has to adapt to the time period if it is going to make its way into someone’s mind. The marketing of information, educational information to boot, is an interesting phenomenon for sure.

  6. WildToo
    0

    The series and its purpose promises so much in providing a solution to each subject of each episode. I think it is because the title of each episode ends with a question mark. However, after watching each episode, I don’t find myself with a definite answer, or a possible answer, or even drop of additional information that I’ve been aware of prior to watching it.

    So, my opinion about the show in three points would be (1) The show should not raise a question in the opening of each episode (witch implied confidence) which they WON’T be able to answer by the conclusion. (2) They need to change their strategies on how to attract more “aware” audience rather than mainstream viewers who just find these programs fascinating. (3) Stop using real scientists’ knowledge and perspectives to create a “TV” series.

    • Danny Cox

      Hey, thanks for the comment. I think that you might be missing what I consider to be one of the greatest things about this show—that they purposely ask highly controversial questions. The recurring theme regarding most controversial questions is that they either intrinsically have no answer or we are just too premature as a society to answer them.

      This being said, I think that asking the hard questions is fundamental to our growth as a civilization. If we only asked easy questions then few things would ever change substantially, few paradigm shifts would ever occur in science, and growth in general would decay. Consider this question (more of a philosophical question rather than a scientific one but still appropriate): what is the best moral system? You can give me any answer you like, but at the end of the day, I (and many others before me) will either give you a counterexample to your moral system or an alternate moral system that better solves a certain problem. Although morality in general may be completely subjective to individuals (that is, there simply is no best moral system), asking the big questions like “what is the best moral system” is still a useful activity. Not only will the pursuit to answer the question show you the problems with your own moral outlook, it can possibly teach you a greater lesson about morality in general.

      The same thing is true about the “fringe areas” of science. You say that the show should not ask questions it cannot answer by the end of each episode. I say this is too strict of a guideline. Many members of the public care about these issues, and even though many of these problems are unsolved (and some may forever be unsolved or completely without an answer), knowing that the issues exist and hearing from scholarly sources can make for an intellectually stimulating as well as entertaining show.

      Not to sound too cliché here, but sometimes the journey is more important than the destination, and our road towards finding the answers can be just as satisfying as the answers themselves.

    • Pedro Joseph
      0

      The show tackles theories, a lot of which will likely never be answered with 100% certainty. Within an episode it’ll usually show various theories in the same field that contradict each other. It’s about hearing theories and the (high level) science behind them, not getting answers.

      My suggestion is that you don’t watch the show expecting hard science, but to spark your imagination for possibilities.

  7. Salcedo
    0

    This is a good show, and BRAIN GAMES is a good show too. i watch both.

    • Danny Cox

      I’m glad you think it is a good show, it’s one of my favorites. I’ll have to check out Brain Games, I haven’t seen it.

    • fabric of the cosmos was pretty cool too!

  8. Jessica

    I’ve recently started watching this show, and I’m excited for the new season to start. I believe the promo states “Can humans become gods?” which begs the question how to define human, how do we define god? Really interesting stuff.

    • Danny Cox

      Yes, I am very excited for the new season to start as well. Often when we ask a question such as “can humans become gods?” the question is answered once we reach our definitions of the terms. As you mention, it will definitely be interesting to see how they handle this, as philosophers (and scientists now) have been trying to define “human” and “God” for some time with no consensus yet reached.

  9. I like the shows format as it is. Wormhole mix of philosophy and physics suits me just fine.

  10. Good article. However, I would find it utterly depressing if “Through the Wormhole” were to represent the future of science TV.

    Can we be honest? A few sentences of superficial information served up with dramatic music, visual effects, and a focus on personalities is, well, TV for the very young or the intellectually challenged.

    Most intelligent people that I know want their knowledge injected at that fastest possible rate with the fewest distracting frills. That’s why they rely on reading instead of TV watching.

    It always seemed tragic to me that even small cable networks like the Science Channel still, like all other TV networks, go after the central bulge in the probability distribution of IQ. If they had instead sought after the top 10%, they’d have it all to themselves.

    My view: The future of Science TV is YouTube. It caters to the full spectrum of viewer sophistication.

    • Danny Cox

      You have to realize that we are talking about television. Unlike science itself, science television shows are selling a product. The desirability of the product determines its success in the market of television. The hard part about creating a successful television show, especially a successful science television show, is finding the balanced line between the two extremes: monotonous lecturing and pure entertainment. It doesn’t necessarily follow that just because Through the Wormhole is a successful science show that it must be free of entertainment value and appeal strictly to higher-educated audiences. It doesn’t even follow that the science displayed on the show will be accurate. The only thing that follows is that the show has done something correct to make sell its product better than other shows. This is what I was trying to argue here, that the show has proven to be successful.

      I am absolutely aware that when the goal is simply to “inject knowledge at the fastest possible rate,” that we should turn off the television and instead option for the monotonous lecturing, reading, or educational YouTube videos. But you must understand that this is not why people (the vast majority of people) watch television. For the most part, people watch television to get their daily dose of entertainment. Because of this, shows must appeal to the entertainment-hungry masses or fail to be successful.

      The exception to this rule might be something that fills a niche that does not necessarily require it to be entertaining. News channels, for example, do not need to be entertaining to serve their purpose. They could simply give bullet point after bullet point, and robotic interview after robotic interview. But we don’t see this when we watch the news do we? Instead, we see the same thing that exists everywhere: competition. News programs compete with each other for viewers. And how do they compete? By incorporating entertainment value into the content. So it seems that unless people experience a radical change in their reasons for watching TV, that television programs will have a very hard time becoming successful without embracing entertainment to some degree and appealing to the average Joe (in the form of targeting near the tip of the bell in the IQ curve).

      Personally, I don’t watch Through the Wormhole in place of learning the technical science in a purely academic setting. Rather, I watch it because it entertains me while driving home points I am probably already been familiar with, it can expose me to viewpoints that I might not have been aware of, and most importantly, it proves to be inspirational in many ways. I would be glad if the science channel started to feature calculus-based physics lectures and higher-level science, but I’m afraid that until the public becomes more educated, we will be forced to settle for shows like Through the Wormhole for our science television.

  11. Jeffrey Ozanne
    0

    In my opinion Science Channel has been moving towards pure entertainment with less science related shows. For example: Alien Encounters while entertaining to watch, is utterly absurd. For a channel that promotes facts and science, they are veering off-course.

    • Danny Cox

      Ya, I know what you mean, but there are still some gems in the mix. The same goes with the History Channel. I cringe every time I flip past “Ancient Aliens” or some similar garbage.

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