A SELF-SERVING COLLECTION OF REVIEWS


Wired Science


TV BARN (Syndicated)

Interest in science may indeed be down from the Sputnik era, but it seems to be climbing among the viewers of public television. Joining "Nova" and "Nature" on the PBS lineup this week, "Wired Science" is a wholly successful adaptation of the leading print magazine of new technology. It's fast-paced, yet substantial; serious, yet with a light touch.

While the commercial TV networks are airing new shows like "Chuck" and "Big Bang Theory" that both celebrate and make fun of geeks, "Wired Science" operates from the novel idea that people involved in science and technology are neither cool nor uncool. They just are. And since they're responsible for a lot more than inventing cures for cancer and  ED, it's time we got to know them better.

You may have seen the pilot for this show last winter. (In hindsight, it's most notable for the scenes filmed with meteorite hunters in and around Greensburg, Kan., which would later be flattened by a tornado.) "Wired Science" was one of several concepts that PBS and its money source, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, created in their lab as part of an initiative to boost science programming on PBS. When I was in Los Angeles this summer, executives at Wired and KCET, the public TV station there that's co-producing "Wired Science," described to me their fledgling TV show as  "an experiment," an apt choice of words.

To PBS diehards, "Wired Science" may take some getting used to. Seven stories are packed into less than an hour, punctuated with whooshy sound effects and flashy little visual transitions that would go unnoticed on any other network.  I was concerned about the potential for drive-by journalism on "Wired Science," so I was encouraged by the balance and restraint shown in the night's first story. It was Wired correspondent Joshua Davis' report on the Russian hackers who conducted a series of brazen attacks on Internet providers in the former Soviet republic of Estonia. Orchestrated and  widespread, the attacks disrupted nearly every aspect of life in Estonia, one of the world's most wired countries. Officials there believe they were politically motivated. "Intercontinental ballistic missiles used to roll through Red Square," Davis says. "But now the armaments are less obvious."

But Davis balances this with reporting that shows Estonian anti-hackers were up to the challenge. Indeed, this part of the story got better treatment, it seemed to me, than in the print version of Wired. And the TV report did a better job telling viewers of the implications of the Estonian attack for the U.S. "We have, unfortunately, not invested in defense," is how one American Internet security expert puts it.

When the magazine decided to send Davis off in pursuit of the story, the producers of the TV show decided it was time for a field test. "We lent him one of our cameras and wished him good luck," said Executive Producer David Axelrod. "He came back with both a Wired story and a 'Wired Science' story. And the camera's still in one piece."

Other stories on Wednesday's premiere include an interview with author Paul Kedrosky, whose specialty is venture capital and  technology (a favorite subject of Wired readers), and a look at a mind-blowing new computer program that can organize thousands of image files on a single screen. The show is shot in high-definition, which makes "Wired Science" unusual among news magazines. But what else would you expect from something this high-tech?

Posted by Aaron Barnhart



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Galileo’s Battle for the Heavens


THE NEW YORK TIMES

On the Spot as the World Turned


GOOD philosophers, like eagles, fly alone, not in flocks like starlings,'' declares the father of modern science in ''Galileo's Battle for the Heavens,'' a two-hour special on PBS's ''Nova'' scheduled for Oct. 29.
The same goes for intelligent television shows, still rare even as the airwaves (and cable lines) become clogged with ever-thickening  flocks of channels. With this handsome, unabashedly earnest production, ''Nova'' demonstrates a continuing willingness to believe in viewers who are interested in how ideas have taken hold.

The two-hour program, written and produced by David Axelrod, recalls the uproar over Copernican theory at a time when Roman Catholic theology placed a stationary earth at the center of the universe. This is no dry science lesson but a dramatized vision of the contradictory forces pulling on Galileo, who was both a scientist and a devout Catholic. He lived during the Inquisition, in an era when unpopular ideas were grounds for torture or being burned at the stake.

The program was adapted from ''Galileo's Daughter,'' Dava Sobel's best-selling book based on letters written to Galileo by his daughter, who became a nun. She took the name Maria Celeste, perhaps in deference to her father's fascination with the stars, and her letters reveal a touching desire to understand his obsession.

His feelings for her are less clear, because his letters to her have not been found. But Galileo was a prolific writer, expressing his scientific theories as literature in his ''Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems.'' He had the necessary arrogance to combat prevailing wisdom. ''I render grace to God that it has pleased him to make me alone the first observer of an admirable thing kept hidden all these ages,'' he said. But he would die humbled by the Inquisition; his writings were banned. In dramatic recreations, Simon Callow plays Galileo with melancholy grandeur.

While it doesn't reinvent its documentary form, as talking-head experts blend with historical re-creations, Galileo is so sumptuously  produced that it seems to. Beautifully filmed, lucid and colorful in its presentation of Galileo's ideas, and always aware of the man behind them, this special creates a charming portrait.

© The New York Times

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Bataan Rescue



THE PORTLAND OREGONIAN

'Bataan Rescue' recalls heroic, seemingly impossible WWII raid


About 15 minutes into the documentary "Bataan Rescue," viewers may wonder why no film drama has ever re-created it. By the time  it's over, you know. Half of it seems to be compactly packed with the hoariest Hollywood cliches. The other half falls somewhere between improbable and outlandish. Even the most shameless hack would not dare include some elements of the mission.

Written and produced by David Axelrod, and directed by Peter Jones, the "American Experience" presentation tells the story of the madly heroic January 1945 raid to rescue 531 American POWs in Cabanatuan prison camp 50 miles northeast of Manila and 30 miles  behind Japanese lines. Axelrod does dramatize parts of the story with re-enactors. For the rest he uses wartime footage, some from the Philippines, some from other areas, including bits from John Ford's "The Battle of Midway." His pithy narration is ably read by Scott Glenn, giving a detailed overview, but the guts of the story comes from survivors of the raiding Ranger battalion, Filipino scouts, and POWs and men who somehow survived the Bataan Death March and then three years of prison.

The raid was inspired by news of Japanese atrocities elsewhere, including the island of Palawan where, in December 1944, they burned 150 American prisoners alive. Allied leaders believed -- and captured Japanese documents later confirmed -- that Japanese prison administrators were supposed to kill all prisoners before they could be liberated. The 121-man American force ordered to conduct the raid had been harshly but thoroughly trained, but not for this mission. The Cabanatuan mission was still being planned as the troops moved out, supported by some 250 Filipino scouts, only about 90 of whom were armed.

The force's leader was a 32-year-old West Pointer, Lt. Col. Henry Mucci, a train-hard, fight-easy live wire who in January 1943 formed his command in a brutal training regimen that made "The Dirty Dozen" and other films showing tough training look like a cricket match. A couple of his men freely admit they hated him as much as he seemed to hate them, one reason being that every impossible thing he demanded of them he did first. Once the commando was formed, his tone changed utterly, and they were his boys, and they loved him.

The unit, the 6th Ranger Battalion, hadn't been trained for any specific mission but was ideal for this one.

At a glance, the mission seemed satirically challenging. A force of nearly 400 men was to dash 30 miles behind enemy lines, round up caribao-powered carts for the lame, storm the camp, neutralize an anticipated 500 Japanese soldiers, extract 531 skeletal prisoners and then get them all 30 miles back to safety. And then there was the last-minute report of an encampment of about 8,000  Japanese troops about a mile from Cabanatuan.

"Bataan Rescue" offers a finely balanced account, with Glenn reading the big picture and the veterans filling in the small, vivid and often  ghastly details. A few authors also comment, notably Hampton Sides, whose "Ghost Soldiers" is a must-read for those wanting to know more about this amazing action, which should be anyone who sees the documentary. ...

© The Oregonian

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Lost at Sea, the Search for Longitude



THE TORONTO GLOBE & MAIL

PBS tells tale of discovery of longitude with swashbuckling vigour  JOHN ALLEMANG

It takes courage to put the word longitude in the title of a TV show in this crass age. Most people would be afraid to pronounce it, let alone sit through an hour-long documentary about the man who figured out how to calculate it. But courage is something PBS has no shortage of, and it's thanks to the uncommon sense of the U.S. public broadcaster and its flagship science series Nova that we have the opportunity to watch Lost at Sea: The Search for Longitude (PBS at 8 p.m.).

Okay, so they buried the word in the subtitle. When you're going up against Home Improvement and JAG, you have to look for an edge somewhere. Calling the program Lost at Sea at least suggests a little bit of swashbuckling excitement. But the real excitement is more cerebral, in the best PBS tradition. Lost at Sea is a completely engrossing story about the dogged determination of an uneducated carpenter, John Harrison, to solve the greatest scientific problem of the 18th century.

Lost at Sea takes as its starting point a devastating shipwreck off the Cornwall coast in 1707:
Thousands of British sailors were lost because no one knew how to calculate a ship's position on the high seas. Latitude was no  great problem. Navigators could figure out their north-south by observing the height of the noonday sun or by measuring the length of the day. But longitude was a complete mystery. Once sailors got out of sight of land, they largely went on guesswork.

It was a problem that dominated 18th-century thinking, as the sea became the focus for global expansion and international trade. The closest 20th-century parallel may be the resources the Americans put into the Apollo space program, except that the need to figure out longitude must have seemed much more urgent and pressing. The British Parliament offered a prize of £20,000 -- millions in today's dollars -- to the person who came up with a working solution. There was no shortage of crackpots with loony ideas. The contest so transfixed London that it became a topic in William Hogarth's satiric drawings.

Lost at Sea, which is based on Dava Sobel's book Longitude, brilliantly captures the thinking of an age when much-respected mathematics professors could quite seriously suggest that the best solution was to anchor warships at intervals across the Atlantic  and have them fire off rocket beacons each night at midnight. It has a sense of humour in dealing with the loopy science that arises, then as now, when there's money to be made from new ideas. And it is also a visual delight with many saltwater scenes shot from rolling decks of a magnificent masted ship -- one glimpse of the moon heaving across the heavens like a ping-pong ball and you realize that it could never work as a reference point for navigators.

But the greatest strength is the show's ability to take challenging scientific thought and turn it into a dramatic story about one man's quest. When the leading thinkers of the period dictated that longitude would be found in the stars -- in spite of the insuperable difficulties of observing the heavens from stormy seas -- Harrison realized that it was all a question of time. If he could manufacture a clock that would keep precise time on the seas, he could determine through the speed of the Earth's rotation how far a ship was from its home port. The story of Lost at Sea then becomes a tale of building the perfect clock, and when the Prague Symphony isn't supplying spirited 18th-century sinfonia accompaniment, the background noise is of comforting ticks and tocks.

Patrick Malahide, who made a name for himself in Dennis Potter's series The Singing Detective, plays Harrison in scenes that powerfully  illustrate the struggle of one man of imagination against the blinkered scientific Establishment. What could have been an awkward series of periwigged vignettes is made vivid by Malahide's rough-spoken quotes from Harrison's passionate journals. A man obsessed with accuracy, he had no time for his critics, and his paranoid denunciations are splendid.

The script, energetically narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, is literate without being in any way pompous. There is only one problem.  In a show that is so fundamentally about precision -- Harrison's most advanced timepiece lost only 30 seconds in a six-week test voyage to the West Indies -- the word longitude is pronounced two different ways.

© The Globe and Mail Company

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Wright Brothers' Flying Machine


THE NEW YORK TIMES


Bicycle Repairmen and Their Flying Machines    VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN

For gentle boys who shun "Punk'd," porn and PlayStation -those enchanting third-graders who even now sort coin collections atop bedspreads spangled with Saturns -television has always been easy. Send in the usual wonderment programming: race cars, rockets, engineering, science.

The late lamented "young male viewer" who is apparently fleeing broadcast television for ribald cable is a breed apart from these genuinely young men. They continue to bookmark pbs.org, checking it for coming shows about their hobbies. As a treat, and on time,  they sit down to watch with a plate of healthy snacks.

For the well-adjusted, under-10 set, then, here comes "Nova" with "Wright Brothers' Flying Machine," a documentary about early aviation  that will have its premiere tonight. It's a wide-eyed hour, a spiffy story of American know-how and gumption that appears to have been adapted from a public-school filmstrip.

Crackly vignettes of men in bowlers on dunes are interspersed with a contemporary drama: an effort to recreate a Wright 1911 Model B and fly it in celebration of the centennial anniversary of the Dec. 17, 1903, flight of the Wright 1903 Flyer at Kitty Hawk, N.C.

The program works hard to drum up suspense about what appears at first to be a trifling stunt for seasoned engineers. In spite of the Wrights' secrecy about their inventions, many photographs survive of the 1911 Model B, the culmination of their experiments, along with telling letters and receipts. Ken Hyde, a former pilot who now works restoring vintage aircraft, would seem to have been well equipped to get an old plane off the ground in late-space-age 2003.

But just as the Wrights couldn't envision supersonic fighter planes, neither can their successors, it seems, precisely imagine backward, to the deceptively simple Model B. During the show Mr. Hyde, together with a Wright fanatic, Rick Young, studies the three-part Wright gospel of aviation (lift, control, propulsion), restores an original Wright engine, and even engages a violin maker to perfect his plane's woodwork. Mr. Hyde and Mr. Young get far, but they still can't outright out-Wright the Wrights.

But so what did the brothers have that aviators today lack? Grit? Their records demonstrate only that these onetime bicycle repairmen were thrifty, recording every nickel out. Photos don't reveal much either. The Wrights were handsome, somber, and square-jawed, from a "tight-knit Midwestern family" and concomitantly opaque. (A diagram of Bernoulli's theorem substitutes for psychobiography.)

Maybe what the Wrights had was innocence. Oh, come on – why not?

One historian on the show recalls early newspaper accounts of the Wright's experiments. "The reporter asked the boy if he had seen the airplane fly, and what it had been like," he said. "The kid responded by putting his arms out, and running around the room, going like this and making airplane noises.

"It struck me, when I first ran across this account, that that must have been the first time in the history of the world when a child had demonstrated the flight of an airplane that way."

Yes, this is "Nova," still courting the kids without attention deficits, using hard-hat heroes and patriotic fables of ingenuity. You could almost become cynical about it.

© The New York Times

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The Great Transatlantic Cable



THE PORTLAND OREGONIAN

Even today it seems a monumental undertaking, bordering on the impossible.   TED MAHAR

The chances of laying a telegraph cable across the Atlantic seemed microscopic in 1858, when the daring project began. For one thing, no ship was big enough to carry the whole cable. For another, if the cable broke -- despite elaborate precautions -- the chances of grappling it back up to the surface -- a mile or two or three -- seemed even smaller.

The physical, moral and technological adventure plays out in "The Great Transatlantic Cable," an "American Experience" episode written and produced by David Axelrod and directed by Peter Jones.

Using photographs of the time and re-enactors, "Cable" plays the tale out succinctly but engagingly. The story even has a central hero from beginning to end, a just-30 Yankee millionaire named Cyrus Field, who sought the worldly rewards of his venture but also considered it the duty of the well-off to do good deeds.

Field had made his reputation by taking over a failed paper-producing company and making it a going concern. Once he was flush, he paid off all the company's debts, even though no law compelled him to do so. Some might call it cynical, calculated grandstanding, but the context of Field's life indicates that he acted out of sincere principle. Still, it was a fabulous tool for separating investors from their capital for his cable venture.

Needless to say, he was eventually successful. Since 1866 the United States and Europe have been connected by telegraph cable. It was incalculably tougher to string than copper wire on land poles, but almost impossible for humans to cut.

The telegraph line was the first electronic boom. It nullified space and time in a way nothing had before. In 1843 the government paid for a line between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. By the time Field's first ship sailed in 1858, all kinds of businesses, military establishments and government projects depended on instantaneous communication. Even in World War II, it was not a telephone call families dreaded but the Western Union bicyclist.

But in 1858 it still took two weeks for messages to cross the Atlantic.

"Cable" details how the idealistic Fields risked his considerable fortune -- and those of many of his friends -- and lost the money as the unforeseen happened, and in retrospect seemed humiliatingly obvious. When it was all over, and he was even wealthier than before, he confessed that his ignorance was a key factor in his success. Had he fully comprehended what his effort required, he would have diverted his passion elsewhere.

Ultimately, Field depended on a vessel that could easily fill an "American Experience" documentary in itself. It was The Great Eastern, the maritime behemoth of its day. Also called "The Great Iron Ship," it could carry the cable by itself.

The transatlantic cable also represented intimate cooperation between commercial enterprise and government. A Navy lieutenant who independently shared Field's enthusiasm brokered his case, and the project began with the detachment of a couple of U.S. Navy ships. In truth, in July 1858 they had little else to do.

Field's success belies the incredible difficulties he and his partners and employees had to overcome. Worst-case scenarios emerged from time to time. Of course, they were overcome or compensated for, but the film creates an immediate sense of how they created havoc for the hardworking, tense adventurers.

As one of the historians in the film notes, "The project was never far from catastrophe."

© The Oregonian




© DAVID AXELROD, 2017
 

ne of the historians in the film notes, "The project was never far from catastrophe.