Every day, billions of people work with machines they don’t understand. How many of us talking monkeys actually know how a cell phone works? But all around us is the biggest machine of all, complex and vital beyond measure, the intricate system of our own planet.
Since 1974, the PBS series Nova has been exploring the realm of science and scientific endeavor with a signature combination of intelligence, technical prowess, and elegant visual style. One of the most beautiful episodes I have seen is the recent release “Earth From Space,”which explores the natural forces that shape the Earth as viewed from the network of 120 satellites that ring the globe.
This show presents a compelling argument for the idea of the Earth as “one giant system,” intertwined from pole to pole in an interaction of sometimes invisible forces such as atmosphere, wind, sunlight, rain, and doughnuts (just kidding about that last one–everybody knows doughnuts are a force unto themselves, worthy of their own episode; get on that one, Nova).
The filmmakers have taken footage of many kinds (visible light, microwave, thermal, etc.) from the satellites, and combined them with computer-animated renderings to present a fuller picture of all these forces at work, some in stunningly rich colors and creative detail. Among many threads of inter-dependence, connections are drawn between ice formation at the pole and the flow of nutrients into the rest of the ocean, and the effect of Sahara desert dust on the plant life of the Amazon basin.
Typical to the Nova format, there are brief interviews with scientific experts who frame the footage with appropriate detail and a human touch of buttoned-down “this is SO cool” enthusiasm. The crisp editing keeps the episode moving briskly, from global landscapes of jet streams around the Antarctic to the tiny details of ice crystals knitting into solid form on the ocean surface.
Especially interesting is footage from 2005, tracking the development of Hurricane Katrina as a massive cloud system tracked by microwaves penetrating inside those clouds. These microwave measurements show the existence of “spark plug” columns of water-vapor energy inside the hurricane, one of the reasons that Katrina was such a devastating monster of a storm. There is also stunning footage of a volcanic eruption and plume of ash from Papua New Guinea, and a thermal vent on the ocean floor.
While this episode is far from an eco-polemic, one could easily follow the implications of this vast inter-dependent system for its sometimes unwilling stewards, with their doughnuts and their opposable thumbs . Careful with the mucking about, talking monkeys, the big machine is more complicated than you know, even without the doughnuts.
The Blu-ray edition of “Earth From Space” is presented in High Def 1080i, in 1.77:1 aspect ratio. The disc looks fantastic, with vibrant colors in the computer animation, and incredibly detailed photography. There is an English SDH subtitle track available.
The audio track is Stereo 2.0, and satisfactory in clarity and volume. The music is well-balanced with the voice-over narration. There are no set-up options.
One of the best recent Nova episodes, “Earth From Space” is a beautifully photographed and painstakingly assembled examination of the satellite-measured, interactive forces shaping our surroundings.