In the distant past, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and PBS had good, often great, shows about science and technology. No longer. There is no latter-day Ustinov narrating aircraft documentaries, no George Abells creating Project Universes for distance learning. Explosion-happy disaster-porn rules the day. And Punkin Chunkin.
Many independent filmmakers have jumped into the void distributing mostly short-form documentaries on Youtube with mixed results. There are young, flat-voiced, rapid-fire hipsters. Of these, Vi Hart is brilliant, bordering on genius. There’s a lot of Martin Gardner in this ‘recreational mathemusician‘ who sketches, doodles, scissors, and glues to bring abstractions into graspable reality. Once the viewer has something to hold, she takes off like a wild mustang usually through the fields of symmetry and structure. It’s an exhilarating ride although older viewers may enjoy her unique voice at judicious intervals.
Australian Brady Haran has taken a very different path, mostly in association with the University of Nottingham. His Periodic Table of Videos, Numberphile, and Deepsky Video channels have a huge following. Nottingham has a surprising concentration of engaging, often quirky professors who come of very well in Haran’s cinema-verite style. Chemist Martyn Poliakoff, he of the snow white afro, has quite a bit to say about the elements and a few choice molecules. Astronomy and astrophysics are equally well represented by Mike Merrifield and Meghan Gray. Here the emphasis is on Messier Objects and science on the galactic scale with occasional forays within our own solar system. Philip Moriarty (yes, Prof. Moriarty) and Ed Copeland present the manic and serene faces of physics for Sixty Symbols. Together these now-established and the emerging Computerphile series are a fascinating glimpse into historical and modern science. The scientists talk about some topic with an occasional demonstration or by sketching on a large sheet of butcher paper. Haran is a gifted, self-effacing journalist. He often asks simple yet highly perceptive questions that elicit insights on the messy, often thorny, means by which science gets done. It isn’t malicious or done for effect and the results can be illuminating even for other practicing scientists.
Carol and Wayne Campbell run the Hila Outdoor Center in the Ottawa Valley and also produce educational videos for schools. Each film centers around a small project most of which can be made from common, inexpensive materials. Wayne Campbell describes the science, often in historical context, builds the project, demonstrates it, and then ties it back to the concept under discussion. His voice – calm, measured, and quietly authoritative – is hypnotic along the lines of Bob Ross. Astronomy is a major topic with electricity and electronics also well represented. The Campbells are devotees of nature with attendant interests in natural resources and alternative energy. The series on beekeeping and honey harvesting is fascinating.
Three very different people and approaches who nevertheless share a respect for their subjects and for their audience. Refreshing, rare, and well worth the time.
And, on further reflection, Vi Hart IS a genius.