Back-to-school season leaves us feeling bittersweet. Sure, we're psyched that we'll never have to cram for another final or tweak the margins of a term paper, but a part of us actually misses the atmosphere of academia. We don't think we're alone in saying that, after a few years out of school, we actually miss the relatively hassle-free life of learning for learning's sake. Since we aren't heading back anytime soon though, we did the next best thing, and pulled together the greatest science and technology-centric TV programs ever made. All of them have at least a few clips, if not full episodes or entire series, available online, and most are available on DVD, as well. When your brain says it's hungry, feed it.
Mr. Wizard's World
The undisputed father of the TV science show, Don Herbert -- or Mr. Wizard
as he was known to millions of children over his decades-long career -- holds a special place in our hearts. Although we weren't around when his live show premiered in 1951, the version we caught in the '80s and '90s still offered the same irresistible hook for the curious kid: basic scientific principles demonstrated through the use of fantastically clever and fun experiments. Even though much of the technology and trappings used in his Rube Goldberg-style setups will be amusingly dated to modern eyes, his explanations of core scientific principles are as sound and useful as if they'd been taped yesterday. Mr. Wizard was a huge success from the get-go, having spawned some 50,000 fan clubs across the U.S. by the '60s, and his success lasted through several incarnations over the years before finally ending, in 1994, after a long run on Nickelodeon. As a testament to his real-world influence beyond television, we'd wager you couldn't find a working scientist today who wouldn't credit Mr. Wizard as an inspiration. Though most episodes are only available on DVD, you can hit up archive.org
for several full episodes from various eras of the show.
Long before U.S. networks realized that adults might have an interest in the sciences, too, the BBC had come up with 'Horizon' -- a show exploring current breakthroughs in tech as well as other disciplines. Of late, 'Horizon
' has been criticized for its transformation from a sober, magazine-style format a lå '60 Minutes' to a more sensationalistic presentation, like that of Discovery's Shark Week. (A recent episode about super massive black holes
features the music from 'Predator.') Still, 'Horizon' takes a deeper look into the sciences than most shows would ever dare. Bit of trivia: This show was the inspiration for the U.S. series 'NOVA' (see below), with which it continues to frequently share content. Full episodes are available to U.K. viewers only on the 'Horizon' archived website
, but full episodes broken into clips are readily found on YouTube or DVD.
The Ascent of Man (1973)
Jacques Cousteau famously noted, "When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself." Thankfully, legendary polymath Jacob Bronowski heeded the Frenchman's word, and gave us his masterpiece: 'The Ascent of Man
,' a 13-episode personal essay that explores mankind's path through the millennia. Along the way, he notes the dynamic relationship between technological and social progress. Bronowski was eloquence and erudition personified, waxing poetic about our amazing and unlikely rise to the top of the food chain, our ingenuity, and our luck. It's like experiencing the world for the first time all over again. What's most amazing is that Bronowski apparently often worked without a script. His influence will be obvious to fans of Sir David Attenborough's fantastic nature series as well -- interesting, as Attenborough actually commissioned 'Ascent' for the BBC in the first place. The entire series is readily available via Google Videos
as well as YouTube.
Inspired by the BBC's 'Horizon' series, 'NOVA
' took the sciences -- and viewers -- seriously, delving into complex topics that had seldom before been presented to mainstream U.S. audiences. Now, 37 years later, 'NOVA' is one of the oldest continually running shows on TV, and is the most-watched science program in the world, drawing audiences in more than 100 countries. Like its British counterpart 'Horizon,' with which it still shares some content (see above), 'NOVA' has occasionally been accused of sensationalizing and dumbing-down its material for modern viewers, but we disagree and, in any case, think the ends justify the means. Hit up the show's website
for an extensive catalog of free online content (or YouTube for tons of full episodes), and prepare to go deep down the rabbit hole.
' is a personal-essay series reminiscent of 'The Ascent of Man,' host James Burke diverges from the restrained philosopher-scientist pose, and instead comes off as a borderline-sarcastic, but always clever, commentator. The hook of the show is that Burke (also the founder of Knowledge Web) makes mind-blowing connections between seemingly disparate events in long-lost history, and shows how they inevitably led up to some modern marvel. For instance, the first lunar landing in 1969 is traced back to the use of pikes in battle 600 years ago. Just watch the free associations fly as they rattle easily from Burke's mouth, and try to keep up; the obscure histories alone are worth it, as are the ingenious segues between them. You'll be stunned at the prophetic powers of Burke as he almost perfectly nails our current era's technical wows and woes -- more than 30 years in advance. After you finish the first series, you'll definitely want to hit up his sequels: 'Connections2' from 1994, and 'Connections3' from 1997. All of them are available on the JamesBurkeWeb
Channel on YouTube.
Since this is arguably the most heralded science show of all time, and was hosted by one of the 20th century's most beloved scientists, Carl Sagan (of 'Glorious Dawn
' fame), we feel duty-bound to offer up a warning to the uninitiated: put your irony-drenched skepticism on the shelf, and embrace earnestness for your first watch. With music by New-Age god Vangelis (whom we have forgiven for 'Chariots of Fire
'), a fair amount of self-consciously trippy graphics, a corny fake spaceship and a wardrobe chock full of turtlenecks, 'Cosmos
' will feel quite dated at first. But, as yet another of the personal essay-type series, it's a remarkable time capsule, and the hard science discussed therein remains sound. The inspiration for the series is chilling. Produced at the height of the Cold War, amid a constant threat of thermonuclear armageddon, it is a personal plea from Sagan to step back, grasp the unbelievable rarity, luck and beauty of human existence, and do whatever it takes to prevent it all from ending at the push of a button. Sadly, we're not far from a similar situation today, which makes the series all the more poignant and relevant. The full series is available on Hulu, and clips and episodes can be found on YouTube, as well.
The Day the Universe Change (1985)
James Burke returns with another mind-bender
, a series that explains the evolution of human society through the singular discoveries that fundamentally altered the way we viewed our world thereafter. Think of the discovery that the earth was round and not flat (first explained in Egypt, centuries before the great European explorers), or that planets revolved around the sun. The show is just as engaging and thought-provoking as 'Connections,' as Burke evokes our admiration of formidable intellect while putting exploration into perspective. Hit up the JamesBurkeWeb Channel
on YouTube for the entire series.
Scientific American Frontiers (1990)
Despite being off the air since 2005, 'Scientific American Frontiers
' (or, 'SAF') is still widely shown on local PBS stations across the country. Like other general interest science shows such as 'NOVA' and 'Horizon,' 'SAF' delves into an impressive range of topics with just enough complexity to satisfy informed viewers and newbies alike. Amiable host Alan Alda of 'M*A*S*H' fame turns out to be the perfect presenter for this show; he's not a scientist proper, but rather an armchair enthusiast who approaches most topics by asking the same questions an intelligent viewer might. Hundreds of full episodes are available on the archive of the 'SAF' site, and are also broken into clips on YouTube.
Bill Nye the Science Guy (1993)
Taking up where Mr. Wizard left off, Bill Nye
brought a wackier sensibility to teaching children about science, but without actually dumbing anything down. So, while there are ingenious parody songs, silly sound effects and hammy comedy bits for the younger audience, the show -- like all good kids programming -- still offers plenty of food for the noggin. Despite his comic antics, Nye isn't just a performer; he has real science chops. He's a mechanical engineer who studied at Cornell under Carl Sagan, and who has since become news programs' go-to expert whenever complicated science needs to be explained to the drooling masses. (Yes, that includes us.) Tons of clips can be found on most video sharing sites like YouTube, and a few dozen are playlisted at metacafe
; full seasons can be bought on DVD.
takes the science experiment show founded 60 years ago by Don Herbert, and brings it to its modern, logical extreme: blowing s*%t up. A lot. But scrape away the veneer of hijinx by hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, and it turns out the show employs sound scientific methods to validate or debunk real-world conundrums. The sheer breadth of the topics they address -- from whether or not cars are more fuel efficient using AC than rolled-down windows (sometimes), to whether or not a bullet can blow up a car's gas tank (not unless it's a tracer) -- means every episode is well explained and always entertaining -- a smorgasbord of physics, chemistry, biology and just plain cool technology. The only downside is you'll never watch an action film again without pointing out all its ridiculous fallacies. Hundreds of long clips are available on the Mythbusters
site as well as a few full episodes on YouTube; whole seasons are available on DVD.