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.
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.
Although 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.
Science 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.