December 31, 2006

'NOVA scienceNOW' Gets a Cosmic Perspective

NOVA scienceNOW, the hour-long news magazine from WGBH in Boston, launched its second season on October 3 with a dynamic new host and focused, original segments exploring the leading edge of science. Topics covered in the program included the threat posed to Earth by major impacts from asteroids, appetite control, creating new elements and a profile of robotics engineer/author Karl Iagnemma.

Respected scientist, author and teacher Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson replaced first season host Robert Krulwich, who moved on to National Public Radio. Tyson has served as director of the Hayden Planetarium in the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City since 1995. The multi-tasking astrophysicist has written seven books, including Just Visiting This Planet and his memoir, The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist. Tyson hosted the PBS series Origins in 2004 and had been a featured scientist in previous NOVA scienceNOW segments.

Says Tyson, "I was already heavily tapped for many segments in season one, so I almost felt like the producers were family because of the multiple times that they were in my office asking me one question or another about some part of the cosmic frontier." He was excited to join the show and help meet the challenge of making science accessible and relevant to different audiences. 

Executive producer Samuel Fine was thrilled to welcome Tyson into the NOVA scienceNOW fold. Says Fine, "He brings not only great communication skills, but also the added credibility of being a premiere astrophysicist." Tyson will ideally participate in one of the four or five stories during each episode, voice the narration for the show's featured profile, introduce each segment and wrap the show with his "Cosmic Perspective."

One of the unique features of the show, "The Cosmic Perspective" is a two-minute summation written and delivered by Tyson. The astrophysicist, who also carries the title of executive editor for NOVA scienceNOW, was inspired to create this piece by Andy Rooney's wrap-up on 60 Minutes. Says Tyson, "At the end [of 60 Minutes], there's this sort of old reliable reflection on life and the universe. I wanted to have a counterpart to that for this program--an attempt to tie a bow on all that had just come before you as a viewer. ‘The Cosmic Perspective' is my effort to tap the deepest and most amazing things to know about the universe, and then share them with the listener in such a way that they feel a little more enlightened for having learned it."

This personal touch is just one of the things that differentiates NOVA scienceNOW from NOVA. Other distinct elements include a focus on multiple topics and an emphasis on breaking science news. Explains Fine, "The ‘NOW' indicates everything that you need to know about our series. We're charged with being as topical and cutting-edge as we can be in our story selection. Because of the NOVA style, that's not something that's necessarily a part of their broadcast."

Tyson believes that the new format will aide WGBH and PBS in reaching new viewers who may have the same interests as the traditional NOVA audience, but not the same attention span. "As the demographic shifts, the up-and-coming generation has a different sense of what is long and what is short, and a different way they invest their time," says Tyson. "You need a different key to reach them and open their locks. With its segments, NOVA scienceNOW becomes a very downloadable thing. You could vodcast it, you could parcel it in ways that creates other kinds of educational product for the public. The program represents a whole new shaped key to bring the frontier of scientific discovery to the public." Currently, NOVA scienceNOW offers both original video and audio podcasts on iTunes. The program is supplemented by regularly updated audio, video and text reports from NOVA scienceNOW producers and correspondents on the program's website, www.pbs.org/nova/novasciencenow.

The second episode of the season will premiere on PBS on Tuesday, November 23. Segments scheduled at press time included pieces on the deadly 1918 Flu epidemic, unlocking the secrets of ancient papyrus scrolls and the "Climate of Mass Extinction."
NOVA scienceNOW is produced for PBS by the WGBH Science Unit. In addition to Fine and Tyson, other program personnel include senior series producer Vincent Liota and supervising producer Stephen Sweigard. Paula Apsell is director of the WGBH Science Unit and senior executive producer of NOVA

Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary. She also cops to being a science geek.  

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