Thanks to Cosmos, astronomy has a great series to communicate the wonder of space to the public. But what about the other sciences? How can we get a new generation hooked on science in general? Here are some brilliant nonfiction books about science, that absolutely must become documentaries or TV series.
These are grouped by area of science — because every aspect of the sciences deserves to live on the screen.
Biology and Genetics
There is a curious split in the public's knowledge of biology. People know how genes evolve, mutating, and proliferating. They also know how forms evolve, gradually branching out, changing from one basic form to many variations over time. But what we lack is a way of integrating these two approaches to evolutionary biology. How do the changes in genes result in the physiological changes? How do they, together, result in the evolution of a species?
Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5 Billion Year Evolution of the Human Body gives us the link between juggled genes and evolving bodies. It shows us all the ways that the human body carries the genetic and physical legacy of other species, going all the way back to the species that crawled on the sand or swam in the ocean. More importantly, it shows us specific examples of how a genetic change can turn a fin — an actual fin, on an actual fish — into the beginnings of a hand.
We've seen documentaries that imply that we can reverse engineer a dinosaur from a chicken. This one could tell us how, with enough patience, expertise, and knowledge, to turn a fish into a human. In doing so it will bridge the gap between what we know about the evolution of genes, and what we know about the evolution of the bodies that carry those genes. Luckily, Your Inner Fish is coming to PBS this spring!
So much of chemistry is focused on the elements, and the periodic table. This is both because they are important, and because when you step away from single elements and their organizational system, you enter a world so overpopulated that it becomes impossible to focus. Chemistry has so many combinations of elements, each of which has so many applications, that it's nearly impossible to wring any kind of narrative from the science.
Napoleon's Buttons dispenses with one narrative and provides us with 17 different stories about how molecules have changed the world throughout history. The title refers to the tin buttons that turned to dust in extreme cold, contributing to Napoleon's defeat in Russia. Other chapters explain how morphine, nicotine, and caffeine are related, and still others cover the precious molecules that spurred the spice wars.
Plenty of people know about atoms, and about the periodic table. Molecules, with their complexity and versatility, still stay, for the most part, in the public blindspot. While there is no such thing as a comprehensive look at chemistry, we need something to help us examine the many combinations of atoms that shape everyday life, instead of single atoms on a chart.
Don't get me wrong, I love relativity and quantum mechanics, but they get the easy glory. One of my favorite books, and one that lends itself to careful reading, is Magnificent Principia, by Colin Pask. The book explains the Principia Mathematica, the book in which Newton laid out the laws of motion. Newton's style is famously impenetrable. Even at the time, people joked that no one understood it. At the same time, it provides a framework for understanding what we see every day. It is literally everywhere we look. Magnificent Principia connects the pages of Newton's book to the reality of what we see.
Most of the books that are suitable for TV series or movies go wide. This is one goes deep. Section by section, we learn what Newton said, why he said it in a certain way, and why that was revolutionary at the time. The ideas require the depth and attention that a long series can provide (perhaps with some helpful animation that might give life to Newton's diagrams). One of the main complaints about television series is the fact that they can only provide a superficial view of their subjects. By limiting the subject, and providing an explanation, examples, and a historical analysis of each idea, this is a tv series that could help the lay viewer really understand one of the most important scientific documents of all time.
A controversial, but interesting series, could also be made of the fascinating book, Time Traveler: A Scientist's Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality. The book is exactly what its title implies. Dr. Ronald Mallet describes his attempt to engineer a machine that people have been dreaming of since the time of H. G. Wells. There are plenty of opportunities for missteps, here, but there's also the opportunity for a new kind of series. So many documentary series give the impression that science is a settled body of knowledge. It's actually a process - one that involves deduction, creativity, and perseverence in the face of uncertainty. There could be great value in showing how different people, with real science backgrounds, are struggling towards seemingly impossible goals. Granted, not everyone is going about it the right way, and not every goal is achievable, but this is a series that could show the idealistic spirit of scientists, leaving the viewer to decide if that idealism is justified or not.
We all love seeing space, the final frontier, getting up on the screen in Cosmos. We can all hope this series leads to greater enthusiasm for space exploration. But there are so many sciences that could benefit from more understanding and enthusiasm being directed their way. What books, or what series, do you want to see up on the screen?