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An answer to the anti-science crowd, ‘Nova Wonders’ on PBS ponders big questions in a changing world

An answer to the anti-science crowd, ‘Nova Wonders’ on PBS ponders big questions in a changing world
Mathematician Talithia Williams is one of the hosts of the new PBS science series "Nova Wonders." (WGBH)

Once upon a time, right now, in a country called the United States of America, science was taking a beating from people who misunderstood or simply did not like science, scientists or the scientific method. Some regarded it as no better and possibly less plausible than witchcraft.

Dark matter? Dark arts!

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So please welcome "Nova Wonders," a six-episode series sprung from the long-running science program "Nova" and a tonic against ignorance and superstition and those who would sacrifice the future for profit, premiering Wednesday on PBS. (And, just generally, welcome PBS.)

The word "wonders" operates here both as a noun and a verb, indicating that marvels are in store, and also that this is a series where questions will be asked. They are big ones, such as, "Are We Alone?," "What Is the Universe Made Of?," "Can We Build a Brain?" and "Can We Create Life?" The answer is sometimes no, or not yet, or we don't know yet, but we know more than we did, which are valid scientific results.

Some overlap: "Are We Alone?" is partially answered, in a terrestrial way, in the episodes "What Are Animals Saying?" and "What's Living in You?"

The style is speedy and informal, pitched to younger viewers but never condescending. "Just after the Big Bang, the universe was literally a hot mess," we are told. The human brain, powered by "60 watts and a burrito," is a highly portable organ that does what roomsful of linked computers still can't.

‘Nova Wonders’ sends the message that scientists come in a range of ages, genders, colors and hairstyles. Come on in, kids, they say, the STEM is fine.


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The show is akin to YouTube series such as "Physics Girl," "It's Okay to Be Smart," "BrainCraft," "SciShow" and "Numberphile," to name a random few among many — some of which reside on PBS' digital wing — and not just in the energy and the relatively tender age of the hosts. All are scientists themselves; significantly, without making a point of it, "Nova Wonders" sends the message that scientists come in a range of ages, genders, colors and ethnicities, with a range of hairstyles, clothing and research specialties.

Two of the series' three presenters are women; all are people of color.

"I'm an neuroscientist, and I study the biology of memory," says host Andre Fenton, at the top of each episode.

"I'm a computer scientist, and I build technology that can read human emotions," says host Rana el Kaliouby.

"And I'm a mathematician using big data to understand our modern world," says host Talithia Williams.

Come on in, kids, they say, the STEM is fine.

But perhaps the larger work of "Nova Wonders" is to remind us, as we cannot be reminded too often, that, on the one hand, we are part of a fatefully interconnected world, for which we have created the means to wreck, and that, on the other, we are small change in the universe, which will eventually wreck us. It reminds that we are ourselves animals, and hosts to animals — there are more microbes living in and on your body than there are stars in the galaxy or, weirdly, human cells in your body. I am not sure I needed to know about the sexual habits of the skin mites that live beneath and upon my skin, but you don't get smarter by looking away.

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'NOVA Wonders'

Where: KOCE

When: 9 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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