A Different Flavor of Science Fiction–The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert is fiction about the heart of science. Alma Whittaker, the protagonist represents the empirical ideal, while Ambrose Pike stands in for the mystical and metaphysical. The Signature of All Things is another kind of science fiction, a story about scientific thinking, set in the 19th century, the century where the scientist came into being, the century where we turned from reading the word of God to reading all things natural, the century where evolution was revealed as the driving force of creation.

I love The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert so much that I hunger to know how it was written. This book is such a perfect mixture of historical detail, psychological realism and imagined characterization that it becomes deeply philosophical, going well beyond just a great story. I can’t help but believe it’s Gilbert’s personal statement about the nature of reality. I don’t know if Alma Whittaker is Elizabeth Gilbert, but she’s probably the woman Gilbert would want to be if she lived in the 19th century. Don’t let any prejudice about Gilbert’s earlier books keep you from reading this one.

If you love stories of the 19th century, especially ones about natural philosophers becoming scientists, then you should read The Signature of All Things. Gilbert’s sprawling tale covers two lifetimes beginning in the 18th century and ending in the 19th, and includes sea voyages, botany, biology, lithography, Tahiti, Captain Cook, Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. This time around, we get to live an alternate history where there is a woman scientist, Alma Whittaker, who made some very great discoveries on her own. Alma Whittaker is the person you’d want to be if you could reincarnate backwards in time.

If you’ve ever fantasized about living in the 19th century and becoming an amateur scientist yourself, The Signature of All Things is among the more detailed of such fantasies. Science fiction has always looked to the future, but the future hasn’t turned out to be everything it was cracked up to be, so many science fiction fans have turned to fantasy, and many of them love steampunk, a retro look at the Victorian era. This book isn’t steampunk, but it wears the same appealing fashions. I think there are many deep rooted psychological reasons why us futurists have turned to look backwards to Darwin and Dickens. This book is historical, but not quite historical fiction. It has intense sense of wonder, but it’s not science fiction, not in the traditional sense, but it should appeal to the science minded person.

Science fiction itself evolved out of Victorian era sense of wonders, and we grew up believing in lone inventors who could master the magical incantations of science. We love all those butterfly collections, scientific sea voyages and dinosaur hunters.

Orchid lithograph

The Signature of All Things is a love letter to those who embrace the natural world over the metaphysical.

The entire time I read The Signature of All Things I kept wondering how Gilbert imagined her novel. I’d gladly buy The Making of The Signature of All Things if Gilbert would write it. The book is an amazing feat of imagination, research, inspiration and psychology. In one sense it’s a feminist fantasy, and on the other hand, it’s a fantasy for anyone who reveres the 19th century. I got on the Internet hoping to find clues as to how and why Gilbert wrote this novel, and I luckily discovered that Gilbert had a Pinterest page devoted to The Signature of All Things. The financial success of Eat, Pray, Love let Gilbert spend three years researching The Signature of All Things. Few writers get such an opportunity, and her hard work paid off in a big way.

The first fifty pages of the book is about Henry Whittaker, a fascinating character that could have easily overshadowed the main character, his daughter Alma. Alma Whittaker is the ultimate free-range child educated by her stern Dutch mother, Beatrix. Alma was born January 5, 1800, so she ages with the century. Alma grows up on a huge estate outside of Philadelphia, and her father invited the most interesting men in the world to visit. Even as a child, Alma was expected to carry on an adult conversation at the dinner table. She mastered many living and dead languages, read everything in her father’s large library, and taught herself to become a botanist, specializing in mosses.

I can’t begin to chronicle all the ideas in this novel. Gilbert distilled her three years research into five hundred pages of fiction, and on almost every page, I wondered about her choice of detail to reveal. The book is tightly plotted, with an abundance of vivid characters, and the reader travels around the world three times. And it’s not until the end, that everything finally comes together. It’s a very satisfying ending, yet I wanted to know more. I wanted to know how and why Gilbert made her writing decisions.  I found some of the answers I sought in this interview:

Victorian scientists were big on developing classification systems, mapping every scrap of land and sea, inventing coordinate grids and measurement systems, taxonomies, and most of all, collecting. Science in the time of Dickens was small enough in scope, that most intelligent individuals could be well-versed generalists. There is a special kind of appeal to science before relativity and quantum mechanics. A gentleman or gentlewoman with a microscope and telescope could confirm most of what they read, and it was still possible to keep up with the reading in most fields.

Alma Whittaker, is a woman that wants to understand, and through almost endless hardships, becomes enlightened.

JWH

Faith in Science

I am reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, an overview of the men and women who brought about the age of computers. At other times during the day I’m listening to The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr, a book about how automation is making humans dumber. Isaacson gives the history of computers starting when they were first imagined as mechanical devices, but really came into being as electronic devices using vacuum tubes, and finally evolving into solid state devices we know today after the invention of the transistor.

Here’s my problem. I can sort of visualize how a mechanical calculator works, at least for adding and subtraction, but beyond that my brain explodes. I especially can’t conceive of how vacuum tubes were used to make a digital computer. I started taking computer programming classes in 1971, and even passed two semesters of assembly language. I used to be pretty good at binary and hexadecimal arithmetic.  But it’s extremely hard for me to imagine how a computer actually works. Essentially, it’s all magic, and I just accept that it’s possible to build a computer according to the laws of science – but my acceptance is really faith in science.

Nicholas Carr believes the more work we give to computers the dumber humans will become. Watch these two videos, and tell me if you understand them. The first is from 1943 and is about the basics of a vacuum tube, obviously a device essential to most of industrial progress at the time, but a forgotten tech today.

This is the technology that scientists used to build the first electronic programmable computers. Can you in any way conceive of how they get from vacuum tube to data processing? How much would I have to know to understand how the first computers were assembled? I keep reading about vacuum tubes, and even though I get a slight glimpse into their nature, I cannot for the life of me imagine how they were used to create a machine to do arithmetic, and show the results – much less understand the commands of a programming language, no matter how primitive that language.

I then thought maybe I’d understand vacuum tubes better if I could understand how they were made.  I found this film.

This film makes me mightily impressed with scientists of the late 19th and early 20th century. If civilization collapsed it would be a very long time before we could ever reinvent the vacuum tube, much less a computer.

What these two short films show me is human knowledge is divvied up so everyone learns extremely tiny pieces of total knowledge, but collectively we can create magical machines like an iPhone 6. A smartphone represents countless forms of expertise I will never understand, or even fathom with any kind of analogous modeling. An iPhone 6 probably has the equivalent of billions of vacuum tubes as transistors shrunk down into a solid state that are only individually visible with an electron microscope. It’s fucking magic. There’s no way around it. I know it’s science, but to my mind any mumbo jumbo I come up with to explain the miracle of a smartphone is no better than the incantations in a Harry Potter novel.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all were Renaissance beings that knew everything the entire human race had learned up to this point? Would we all have more respect for science if our K-12 education had been about recreating how we got to our current level of technology? What kind of curriculum would be required so that each graduating class had to build an ENIAC to earn their high school diplomas? That would only put them 70 years behind the times.

I don’t want to live by faith in science, I want my brain to comprehend science.

I think Carr might be right. I think we’re passing our knowledge off to machines and slacking off ourselves. One day we’ll have intelligent machines that can actually do anything any scientist in history has every done. And all we’ll know how to do is double-tap an app icon to get it started.

JWH

The Insulting Parts of Interstellar

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 11, 2014

This is not a review of Interstellar. The film is thrilling, emotional and big fun. Go see it. It has some astounding special effects and amazing sense of wonder concepts.

No, what I want to write about is the philosophical implications of the science fiction as presented in Interstellar. The film makes a great touchstone to contemplate the nature of science fiction. Science fiction reflects our collective ambitions about exploring reality and the future of mankind. At the deepest level of desire, science fiction fans want to travel into space, especially to the stars and other worlds. Interstellar even travels to other galaxies, something seldom seen even in the most ambitious science fiction stories.

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Science fiction also reflects our desire to control reality, and sees us as the master of our own fate. Science fiction is a rejection of the metaphysical, which believes humans are the minions of divine beings. Science fiction is hubris at its best (or worse, depending on your belief in God). Science fiction is the ultimate expression of human powered evolution.

The trouble with science fiction is most of humanity doesn’t buy into the dream, they prefer metaphysical fantasies. In Interstellar, NASA is a forgotten aspect of the government, and schools teach that the Moon landings were faked. The movie suggests that the human race gave up on the idea of the final frontier, and that it’s not until humanity is about to become extinct that we finally discover our next stage of evolution is to travel to the stars.

I thoroughly enjoyed Interstellar as an entertaining movie, but some of its philosophical implications rankled me. It suggests that humans are destined to use up the Earth, and when we do, abandon it like an old computer sent to the landfill. The movie makers suggest the savior for our species is to travel to the stars with the help of higher dimensional beings. That smacks of guardian angels to me.

I want humans to travel the stars, but not because we selfishly used up our planet. Besides, I want to colonize space now, and we need to find real reasons to do so. Positive reasons.

In the film, no one campaigns to save the Earth. The conflict is between our descendants who endure our legacy, and those who want to run away. That idea sucks big time. I’m sure the movie makers thought it was just an easy justification for the plot, but I find it offensive. Yet, their attitude is not uncommon. Republicans pretend our sins of self-destruction aren’t ours, while the Democrats are perfectly willing to accept we’re to blame, yet do nothing to stop us from destroying ourselves.

Interstellar sees Earthly humanity expiring and says, “Let’s go to the stars” to start over. Now, here is where I get into spoilers by explaining how we’re saved. One part of the solution involves New Age mumbo-jumbo, and the other part involves 1930s style super-science mumbo-jumbo, the kind found in books by E. E. “Doc” Smith. Neither solution will save us, nor are they philosophically appealing. They each say we need the help of higher powers. Bullshit.

We already know the science to save our planet – we choose not to. Abandoning Earth for the lifeboats is not an ethical solution. It’s about as noble as the Republican’s head in the sand plea of denial, or the Democrats mea culpa “The buck stops here but I ain’t going to do anything about it because the Republicans won’t play fair” whine.

I also find it offensive that the story in Interstellar suggests we need the help of super-beings. That’s one reason I don’t like religion – it shirks responsibility. We don’t need some divine daddy or fifth dimension super being to save us. If we can’t save ourselves then we deserve to go extinct. The movie cops out on its cop out, but I don’t like it’s philosophical solution either.

To me, the science fiction in Interstellar wimps out. Real, hard-core, science fiction is about humanity pulling itself up by its own bootstraps, using real science we discovered. To a degree the movie does that, and that’s exciting, but the ending of Interstellar is much like the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I also found philosophical insulting. Arthur C. Clarke in his two most famous stories, 2001 and Childhood’s End suggests we need outside help getting to the next stage of existence, and that help involves superpowers that are damn close to metaphysical. I find that really distasteful.

I’m a believer in evolution, which doesn’t allow for outside helping hands. You either climb up out of the slime on your own, or you go extinct.

Colonizing space or traveling to the stars is a great ambition, but we need to go on under our own steam, and after we become good caretakers of the Earth. I think if we’re going to destroy everything we touch I imagine our alien neighbors, higher dimensional beings and the gods would prefer we just stay home.

JWH

Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Every fall, I look forward to the Best American series coming out, especially the Best American Science and Nature Writing. The 2014 annuals collects the best of what was published in 2013. If you’re not much of a magazine reader, these annual volumes of essays, short stories, travel writing, mystery stories, sports stories, comics, and even infographics, is a great way to read the best-of-the-best of periodical journalism. I usually get the volumes for short stories, essays and science and nature writing. There also a volume from another publisher, The Best American Science Writing that follows the same format of having a series editor with a yearly guest editor. Between the two, it’s an easy way to keep up with a broad range of scientific studies. They aren’t technical, but extremely well-written reporting of science related news, so even people who aren’t science geeks will enjoy them.

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I’m listing the table of contents for the Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014 with links to those articles still available on the web, so you can sample the writing. The Kindle edition at $8.52 is a cheap way to have inspiring short reads on your mobile device – and the paper copy is only $14.95 at your favorite bookstore. Amazon offers a free sampler of the 2012 Best American series, the collects pieces from all the different subject anthologies. For science and nature this year, we have:

  1. Mixed Up” by Katherine Bagley
  2. The Great Forgetting” by Nicholas Carr
  3. The Social Life of Genes” by David Dobbs
  4. What Our Telescopes Couldn’t See” by Pippa Goldschmidt
  5. A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA” by Amy Harmon
  6. A Life-or-Death Situation” by Robin Marantz Henig
  7. 23 and You” by Virginia Hughes
  8. “Why the Brain Prefers Paper” by Ferris Jabr
  9. “O-Rings” by Sarah Stewart Johnson
  10. “When Animals Mourn” by Barbara J. King
  11. Where It Begins” by Barbara Kingsolver
  12. Danger! This Mission to Mars Could Bore You to Death!” by Maggie Koerth-Baker
  13. The Lost World” by Elizabeth Kolbert
  14. Awakening” by Joshua Lang
  15. Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future” by Maryn McKenna
  16. The Return of Measles” by Seth Mnookin
  17. Ants Go Marching” by Justin Nobel
  18. TV as Birth Control” by Fred Pearce
  19. The Madness of Planets” by Corey S. Powell
  20. Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene” by Roy Scranton
  21. Under Water” by Kate Sheppard
  22. “Twelve Ways of Viewing Alaska’s Wild, White Sheep” by Bill Sherwonit
  23. “The Separating Sickness” by Rebecca Solnit
  24. “Trapline” by David Treuer
  25. The Rebirth of Gorongosa” by E. O. Wilson
  26. Bringing Them Back to Life” by Carl Zimmer

These Best American volumes are perfect for ebook reading. Most people hate reading off their computer screens, and few people read magazines anymore, even when they subscribe. I know many people now that have discovered reading books on their smartphones, so these anthologies of shorter pieces are perfect for reading when you have an idle moment now and then.

Some of these stories are philosophical or political in nature, like “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene” by Roy Scranton, who uses his experiences as a soldier in Iraq to contemplate the inevitable consequences of climate change. Or Pippa Goldschmidt’s “What Our Telescopes Couldn’t See” about her time as an astronomer looking at quasars, and then turning her gaze back to events on Earth. A profound philosophical statement is made by Nicholas Carr in “The Great Forgetting” questioning how much of human endeavors should we share with machines.

Many of the stories are like the terrific “Ants Go Marching” by Justin Nobel, who chronicles the fascinating history of fire ants in America, and his travels around the south visiting folks battling the invasion. Fire ant armies might sound scary, but what’s terrifying is “Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future” by Maryn McKenna. I watched a documentary on PBS Frontline about diseases resistant to antibiotics recently, and it’s far scarier than Ebola, and about equally horrifying as Climate Change.

And don’t let me leave you thinking that all science stories are scary. There’s some good news reports like, “TV as Birth Control” by Fred Pearce, which chronicles how television is helping reduce the population growth in India.

Stories about science, nature and technology really are stories about humans adapting to their environment. We’re constantly at war with Mother Nature, often killing ourselves in our own friendly fire. The history of science is one of humanity making tremendous mistakes, but the overall trends shows we’re learning more and more every year. Humans are the primary cause of climate change – we the primary cause of most changes on the Earth right now. We change everything we touch. We have a long track record of fucking things up, but we’re learning to do better. We’re in a great race – can we learn enough to save ourselves before we make ourselves extinct. We’re in an exciting dead heat at the moment. Most of these stories are reports from the front, about various battles to conquer ourselves.

JWH

Our Window On Reality

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, October 18, 2014

Humans have five senses, but we experience them as a gestalt.  I call that sensation of perceiving everything around us as our window on reality.  A mouse or cockroach would have a much smaller window on reality.  I doubt a bacteria or virus have a window, but if they did, it would be incredible tiny. Humans naturally think they have the largest window on reality because of our egocentric belief we are the crown of creation. We’re not.

And can you imagine the window on reality that God has, if such a being existed? For all our glory we are limited beings, neither angels nor devils, but just a creature of random evolution, one among an unknown many, that use self-awareness to view reality out the window of their limited senses.

Humans that are deaf or blind, or have lost their sense of smell or taste do have smaller windows, and if you close your eyes, you can shut your window to a fraction of perception, but not completely. When you are asleep or unconscious, your window does shut to your conscious mind, but your unconscious mind still peeps out. Only when the brain dies does your window shut completely.

milky-way

The astounding thing about reality is it’s indifferent to the self-aware beings that view it. Reality existed before we were born, and will continue to exist after we die. Our life is merely a short time span when we wake up and look out our window on reality and then we die, and our windows closes forever. Human brains have a tendency to explain what they see out their window by making up stories. Because most of these stories have no relationship with the truth of reality, this tendency is called the narrative fallacy. The human mind has evolved through three stages so far: faith, reason and science. Faith and reason only created delusions about what we see out our windows. Our collaborative efforts at science gives us the hope that we’re all measuring the same reality.

Our window on reality distorts our perception to the size of reality. We assume we’re seeing 100% but we don’t. The visual spectrum is a tiny fragment of the electro-magnetic spectrum. Our range of hearing is also a tiny fragment of sound frequencies. We’ve all heard stories about the fantastic senses of various animals and imagined what that would be like. And then there’s the matter of perspective. The window on reality an eagle peers from at thousands of feet above Earth is much different from ours as we walk along the sidewalk.  And imagine how reality would appear if we had three eyes spaced equally distant around our head giving us a 360 degree view.

If you are familiar with cosmology you’ll know our view on reality is extremely microscopic compared to the true size of reality. Imagine being an atom and how much you’d know about the Earth from your tiny viewpoint of reality.  Compared to the known universe, you’d be smaller than an atom. The same logic holds true for the sub-atomic worlds that are invisible to us, because the ultra small can be truly large from the right perspective.

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What would our window on reality feel like if we had eyes that could focus from what a scanning electron microscope can see to what the Hubble telescope can take in? We’re building robot bodies now that will eventually have artificial minds. We could give them all kind of powerful senses we don’t have. Their window on reality will make ours feel like a peephole.

We expand our window on reality using our imagination to give us virtual windows on reality. If you look up at the night sky you can imagine what you can’t see with your knowledge of astronomy. When we walk through forests, or along tidal bays, we can annotate what we see from knowledge of biology, botany, chemistry and geology.

It is tragic that our narrative fallacies have distorted what we see out our window on reality. We kill each other over disagreements about what we think we see. To kill someone is to close their window forever. That doesn’t change reality. Nor does it confirm your narrative fallacy. We can believe anything, but only science, with consistent observations, reveal what we might be seeing.

JWH

Manned Mission to Mars or Gigantic Space Telescopes?

Which would be more exciting to happen in  your lifetime:  humans landing on Mars, or discovering life on a planet in another star system?  If we were willing to spend the money, and some big money at that, we could explore Mars, or we could build gigantic space-based telescopes to hunt for life on other planets orbiting nearby stars.  In our lifetime the Hubble telescope greatly expanded our vision of reality.  Then the Kepler telescope discovered thousands of exoplanets, letting us know that planets are common.  Building a very large space telescope would allow us to detect what’s in the atmospheres of those planets, including chemicals that indicate life, or even intelligent life.

Growing up in the 1960s with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs I was crazy for manned space exploration, but over the course of the last several decades I’ve been more thrilled with the rewards of robotic missions to Mars, missions to the rest of the solar system, and especially by space telescopes.  NASA has two upcoming spaced based telescopes that I’m trilled to see launched, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).  And ESA has plans for CHEOPS.

If you pay attention to space news, you’ll know that there are many people out there with different goals for space exploration.  Some want to go back to the Moon, others to Mars, some to asteroids, and many want to build fantastic space based observatories.  You can divide them into two groups – those who want manned missions, and those who want robot missions.  I’d prefer both, but what if we don’t have the money for both?  What gets the most bang for our bucks?

Manned missions are exciting and let us feel like we’re progressing towards greater heights of civilization and accomplishment.  Robot missions expand our awareness of reality at a much faster pace than we’ve ever imagined.  However, I feel that manned missions without the goal of permanent colonization doesn’t offer that much for our money.  If we went to Mars to build a new home for humans, to spread our eggs to another basket, then it would be worth all the money we could throw at the project.  If we only send a few people there over a period of decades and then stop, then I’d rather put all our money into robotic missions, especially gigantic space based telescopes that hunt for life in other stellar systems, and giant SETI projects.

If I’m lucky I might live another quarter century and I’d really like to know that we’re not alone in this universe before I die.  Sure, I’d love to know we could send people to Mars and back, but that’s not as exciting as knowing that life, and especially intelligent life exists somewhere besides Earth.  As a lifelong science fiction reader I’ve always felt that to be true, but I’d like to have proof.

Now that the economy is improving, that so many billionaires are starting private space programs, and Thomas Piketty is creating a movement that proves higher taxes would improve capitalism, we might have more money for space exploration, both manned and robotic.  Like I said, it would be great to finance both kinds of missions.  However, if I got to vote, I’d campaign for building a gigantic space based telescope, something far bigger than anything on the drawing boards at the moment.

I have no idea how big will be big enough.  Would building telescopes with kilometer size apertures on the far side of the Moon or out in L5 orbits do the job, or would it take building several large space telescopes positioned around the solar system to create a gigantic hyper-telescope interferometer array?

The trouble with all this is most citizens of the world do not care about science or spending such vast sums of money to learn more about reality.  That’s a shame because spending big bucks gets us big knowledge.  If we had spent the trillion dollars we spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on giant space telescopes we’d know if we were alone or not in the universe.  Or we could have a K-12 and higher education school system that would have produced vast armies of scientists and dazzling inventors and make us far more richer.  Money spent on science pays off more than money invested anywhere else.  It’s a shame we’d rather invest so heavily in war, and other forms of self-destruction.

I wish our species was smarter.

JWH – 7/16/14

A Documentary a Day Keeps the Psychiatrist Away

Most people are put off by documentaries and nonfiction books because they fear they will be educational, especially the mind-numbing kind of education they were exposed to when sentenced to 13 years of hard learning back in their K-12 prison days.  And yes, many documentaries and nonfiction books are as painful as classes back in high school.  However, and I mean a really big however, some documentaries and nonfiction books are mind blowing far out fun and entertaining – if you get off on learning about new things about this world and reality.  A good documentary should educate, but a wonderful documentary will entertain, and a great documentary will inspire.

As I have gotten older, I have become jaded to normal television entertainment.  It takes Breaking Bad quality to make me watch fictionalized television shows, so to fill up my old TV watching time I’ve turned to documentaries.  I’ve discovered if I can find the right documentaries I’m far more entertained than by watching 98% of fictional television shows.  More than that, I’ve discovered that watching a great documentary is uplifting for my mood, even if it’s about a depressing topic.  And the best documentaries inspire me with hope.  Documentaries can be elixirs for the soul.

For instance, last night I watched Touching the Wild on PBS Nature, about Joe Hutto spending seven years with Wyoming mule deer.  It took Hutto over two years of patiently following a herd of mule deer daily before they accepted him.  Eventually, he got to know them so individually that he named them.

Touching the Wild is about more than making friends with wild animals.  It’s an extremely profound philosophical work, about existence and death, about mind, language and intelligence.  One of the things that I’ve been learning from all of these documentaries is science is discovering that that animals are much closer to us mentally than we ever wanted to believe.  We are not God’s chosen creature.  We have no right to claim dominion over all the other creatures of this planet.  Nor can we claim our intelligence makes us superior. 

I am not a religious man, but this film was Biblical in its impact.  Strangely, I had seen Noah this weekend, and it makes you wonder if there was a creator, if he wouldn’t despise humans and want to wipe us out.  Christians babble on endlessly about being saved from sin, but I think it’s a childish cop-out to want to be forgiven.  We need to stop sinning to atone for our sins.  Watching Touching the Wild is like walking in Eden, we can blame the serpent all we want, but it is humans that are destroying paradise.

I was going to write this essay by listing dozens of great documentaries I’ve seen lately, but that would be too wordy I think.  I think instead I should tell you how to find great documentaries.  The highest qualities documentaries on TV are on PBS.  The next best source is streaming Netflix.  For instance I showed my friend Olivia Samsara yesterday that’s from Netflix.  She was blown away.

Cable TV has a lot of channels with documentaries and nonfiction shows, but most of its crap.  Sorry, but it’s true.  Some of it’s okay, but be careful.  The History Channel has such great potential, and sometimes it even has good shows, but all too often it has suspect information.  I wish it was peer reviewed by actually historians.  It would be great if actual Ph.D. historians had a chance to evaluate their documentaries in follow-up shows, because it would be enlightening to teach folks how they are being misinformed.  The History Channel has some good shows among the schlock, like The Universe, but they aren’t as well made as the science shows on PBS.  They tend to endlessly repeat the same animations and information.  Fox has redeemed it’s news division with Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a 13 episode series currently appearing on Sunday nights, that would make Carl Sagan choke up with pride for his protégé Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Like I said, PBS is where it’s at, when we’re talking about documentaries on regular television.  Currently Wednesday nights are called Think Wednesday, that start with Nature and NOVA, and follow up a three part series called Your Inner Fish, based on Neil Shubin’s book of the same name.  Your Inner Fish should give creationists apoplexy and intelligence designers their worst nightmares, but for people who understand evolution it’s a thing of beauty.  If only Darwin could have lived to see it.

NOVA has been running a series on animal intelligence and last night show was about dogs.  Anyone who loves dogs should watch it, especially if you’ve wondered why your favorite pet knows when you are coming home.  By the way, if you have a Roku, get the PBS channel, and you can watch these shows if you missed them.  The Roku PBS Channel keeps current shows around for a few weeks like Hulu.

Throughout the week, PBS has fabulous documentaries.  Just take a chance and try some of them out.  They cover every subject you can think of, and more than you can’t.

The variety of documentaries at Netflix streaming is practically endless.  New ones appear faster than I can keep up.  If you add one to your queue, Netflix will recommend ten more on the same topic.  Often when I add one documentary, I’ll end up adding eight or ten because Netflix is good recommending more that fit my tastes.  And if you aren’t a documentary junky, you’ll be surprised by how many documentaries are being made each year.   Just look at four music documentaries I recently watched.  The variety of all documentaries makes the word diverse quaint.

I’m not much of a traveler, so documentaries are my lazy-ass way of traveling the world.  I’m also on the shy side, so documentaries let me meet people I never would in real life.  But you have to be careful, some documentary film makers are very persuasive, and it’s easy to be convinced into believing bullshit.  We’re so used to fiction, that we accept what we see on TV.  That’s bad.  Being educated can be thrilling, and it doesn’t have to be boring.

What you really want, is to be inspired.  And sometimes you’ll find inspiration in the strangest places.  I’m not into fashion, but I found the documentary on Bill Cunningham, a fashion photographer for the New York Times, who is in his eighties and rides a bike around Manhattan, as very inspirational.  That’s the best thing about documentaries – seeing stories about people who stand out in their effort to achieve their ambitions.  Quite often I watch shows about people that overcome so many obstacles that aren’t in my way and still do things I only dream about.  They make me want to be a better person.

If I’m feeling blue and watch an inspiring documentary, my mind and soul will be uplifted.  If I’m feeling tired and watch a great documentary, I’ll be energized.  There’s more to TV than cop shows and sitcoms, and before reality shows, there were documentaries – shows about the real reality.

JWH – 4/17/14