Thursday, June 26, 2008

'Nova: scienceNOW' is light years from the norm

Gone are the days when a science show on PBS was the television equivalent of castor oil.

Tonight's season kickoff of "Nova scienceNOW" is more like a tall glass of really good lemonade.

It may not be quite as good for you, but it makes you want to come back for more.

One segment tells the inspiring story of how a once-wayward youth found his life's calling in computer science - and that one of his missions today is challenging phony celebrity photographs.

It all started, Hany Farid explains, with the semi-famous People magazine cover photo of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

It was widely thought to be a composite, a suspicion Farid confirmed by comparing the angles of light on their faces.

But he didn't stop there. He developed a computer program that analyzes light and pixels carefully enough for him to debunk other, more serious photo distortions - like an alleged photo of a bombed Lebanese city where thicker smoke had been added to the sky.

Farid describes himself as an "accidental scientist," which is the kind of relaxed attitude that Nova is after when it tells skeptical viewers, "Wait, wait, stay tuned. This isn't all about astrophysics."

Some of it, of course, is about astrophysics. The opening segment documents the search by scientists for "dark matter," an unseen form of matter that apparently affects the motion of the whole universe.

"Nova" treats the hunt for dark matter like a classic mystery with a fascinating, offbeat cast. Scientists work in a lab a half-mile underground so their search for this elusive matter is less likely to be compromised by unseen things zipping in from space.

Host Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist himself, downshifts to populist terms as he acknowledges with some amusement that devoting your life to the search for the unseen is an unusual career choice.

'Nova: scienceNOW' is light years from the norm
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