From Beakman's World to Nova, we rank our favorite educational programming of days gone by.
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Fans of science have a lot to be excited about these days, particularly if they enjoy consuming their science through the television. Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos follow-up has been, by most measures, a resounding success. To make good news even better, it was announced this week that the uber-popular Facebook page, "I F-ing Love Science," will be made into a TV show for The Science Channel.
Science be praised!
In honor of these triumphs of educational broadcasting, we decided to rank our favorite science shows of all time. While it may seem strange to rank Beakman's World above the BBC's Horizon, keep in mind: Much of what makes a science show great is its ability to engage audiences, and what audience is more important for science than young people?
Connections was a ten-part BBC documentary series hosted by science historian James Burke. Through models and historical reenactments, the show demonstrated the myriad connections between the world's greatest scientific achievements, and how they worked together to advance modern science and technology.
Another oldie from the across the pond, The Ascent of Man first aired in 1973. The 13-part documentary series followed host Jacob Bronowski as he travelled around the world, tracing the development of human society through its understanding of science. Some of the producers later went on to work on Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking Cosmos.
Beyond Tomorrow has aired under different names at different times throughout the past several decades. Produced in Australia, the show has always focused on next-gen research and development, with a glimpse at the latest breakthroughs in science and technology that will soon change our lives.
The BBC’s Horizon is both the inspiration for Nova and the longest-running program on our list, with more than 1,100 episodes under its belt. First broadcast in 1964, Horizon was developed as a “platform from which some of the world's greatest scientists and philosophers can communicate their curiosity, observations and reflections, and infuse into our common knowledge their changing views of the universe.”
The Living Planet was a BBC miniseries hosted by David Attenborough that aired in 1984. Essentially an early, analog take on the same material covered by 2006’s Planet Earth, The Living Planet focused on a different type of planetary environment in each episode. Some of the episodes included “The Frozen World,” “Jungle,” and “The Sky Above.”
Scientific American Frontiers was something of an American response to the countless science documentaries coming out of the U.K. Launched in 1990, the show gained some mass appeal when M*A*S*H star Alan Alda took over as host in 1993. With a refreshingly modest attitude, Alda helped the show connect with otherwise uninformed but curious viewers.
Beakman’s World is probably the silliest show on the list, and undoubtedly an inferior rival to Bill Nye the Science Guy. The host, a mad genius named Beakman, performed a variety of experiments in response to viewer mail. Topics ranged from the earnest (how electricity works) to the inane (why we have farts).
Q.E.D. aired in the U.K. throughout the 80s and 90s, and employed a more general-interest agenda to attract broad audiences. The program aired 30-minute mini-documentaries on topics that required little background knowledge. While it covered ideas as diverse as spontaneous human combustion and autistic savants, it never reduced itself to the level of crass sensationalism.
Where Planet Earth attempted to encapsulate the entire world's ecosystem, The Blue Planet focused solely on our oceans. The BBC miniseries event launched in 2001 and—like its younger cousin—was narrated by Sir David Attenborough. The series was described as “the first ever comprehensive series on the natural history of the world's ocean,” and featured a lot of never-before-seen footage of rare oceanic creatures. Bonus: It was produced by a man with the most British name of all time—Alastair Fothergill.
Clearly the most hypnotic show in this list, How It’s Made was built for binge-watching. It's also probably the most unimaginatively titled. The show literally depicts how things are made—everything from rubber tires and pencils to drill bits and airplanes. It’s definitely one of those love-it-or-leave-it shows, but those who love it may never leave the couch. Watch it on a lazy afternoon when you feel ogling at the precision craftsmanship of factory machinery.
Based on a 1950s program featuring the same host, the revamped and more famous version of Mr. Wizard’s World aired on Nickelodeon from 1983 to 1990. Though it's been off the air for many years, the show remains one of the most beloved programs in the network's history. It featured Mr. Wizard (the great Don Herbert) and a young guest of the week conducting science experiments and learning about the inner workings of technology, the animal kingdom, and the physical world.
One of the most popular shows on this list, Mythbusters is a crowd-pleaser if not for its rigorous application of the scientific method, then for its hosts' habit of blowing stuff up. Hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage are not averse to firing giant rocket sleds at small cars to see if they'll pancake, nor are they likely to shy away from testing more sensational ideas, like the one that says your average toilet seat is cleaner than money. (Spoiler alert: It is.)
Another favorite from our childhood, 3-2-1 Contact first aired in 1980, and remains one of the most memorable after-school programs of the decade. The show followed three students as they explored a variety of awesome/radical/bodacious natural phenomena—from music recording, to surface tension, to gravity and night vision—with the occasional cheesy song thrown in for good measure.
No science TV–related list would be complete without Bill Nye. Now a well-known science advocate and communicator, he's known to most children of the 1990s as simply the “Science Guy.” Similar to 3-2-1 Contact and Mr. Wizard’s World, Bill Nye the Science Guy sought to educate children about science in a uniquely comical fashion. It was particularly well known for its funny music bits and Bill's geeky-cool lab coat and bowtie getup.
Where 3-2-1 Contact, Beakman's World, and Bill Nye were crafted to capture the minds of children, Nova is pitched at a much more grown-up demographic. It's also the longest-running science series on American television, and has been rebroadcast in more than 100 other countries around the globe. The show covers a seemingly endless range of scientific topics—from difficult subjects like Fermat's Last Theorem to ripped-from-the-headlines topics like the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Really, it’s difficult to imagine anyone who's made it through American high school having never seen an episode of PBS's Nova.
Planet Earth was the first documentary series filmed in HD, and perhaps not coincidentally the most expensive nature documentary ever commissioned by the BBC. A phenomenally popular series when it aired, the show offered an unprecedented glimpse at the vastly differing flora, fauna, and geographic phenomena that blanket our planet. Though still a landmark series when it was broadcast in America with narration by Sigourney Weaver, we vastly prefer Sir David Attenborough’s version.
The original Cosmos was a thing of pure beauty—a timeless brainchild of famed astronomer Dr. Carl Sagan and the inspiration for a whole generation of scientists. Snaking through both the history and practice of astronomy, biology, chemistry, and physics, Cosmos articulated the importance of cosmological science like no other TV show before or since. Sagan’s eloquent narration, mind-blowing anecdotes, and charmingly nasal speech patterns helped to position him as one of the greatest science communicators of all time.
The 34-year-old series is still the most widely watched PBS program in the world, having aired in 60 different countries to more than half a billion people. A remake—or rather, a sequel—of the original is now airing on Sundays on Fox, hosted by none other than Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Hero Image: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey