Nova covers a wide variety of subjects, from military history to theoretical physics to chemistry to biology and everything in between. Most episodes are single self-contained stories but on occasion they do multi-part miniseries (e.g. July 2012's "The Fabric of the Cosmos").
The series has won twenty-two Emmys and been nominated for an additional three. It has also earned five Peabody Awards. It was also the first recipient of the National Science Foundation's Public Service Award in 1998.
Many back episodes are available for free streaming at PBS.org.
Compare Nature, PBS' other long-running science documentary series which, depending on the year and PBS station, often airs back-to-back with Nova. Not to Be Confused with, well, pretty much any work on this list, or with actual novae or supernovae (although the series takes its name from them).
This series provides examples of:
- Airstrike Impossible: "Bombing Hitler's Dams" has a team try and duplicate Operation Chastise, the 1943 Royal Air Force attack on the Möhne, Edersee, and Sorpe Dams. They built a dam on Lake Williston in British Columbia and had Buffalo Airways carry the bomb underneath one of their DC-4s. Of course, dropping explosives from civilian aircraft is illegal, so they had to drop a dummy bomb and then blow the dam up remotely after they hit it.
- Ass Shove:
- Asteroid Miners: The second half of "Asteroid: Doomsday or Payday?" talks about the possibility of snagging near-Earth asteroids and mining them for valuable minerals.
- Awesome, but Impractical: The Type XXI U-Boat, as mentioned in "Hitler's Lost Sub." It was streamlined, could replenish its air while submerged, and was faster underwater than surfaced. Only they weren't ready until May 1945, less than a week before the end of the war."The Type XXI U-Boat will redefine the future of the submarine, but it has no effect on the outcome of the war for which it was designed."
- Big "YES!": In "Hitler's Lost Sub," when the divers recover a spare parts box and find it is inscribed with the U-boat's number: U-869.
- Bittersweet Ending: "Hitler's Lost Sub" ends with the divers positively identifying the wreck and thus correcting a small piece of history. Nevertheless, three of their friends died during the expedition, and the documentary shows just how hopeless the U-boat war was by the time U-869 left port.
- The Cameo: The episode "The Beast of Loch Ness" can be seen in an episode of Arthur.
- Catch-22 Dilemma: The season 18 episode "Earthquake!" says that in order to figure out how to predict an earthquake, you must find earthquakes to test your theory on.
- Credits Pushback: As with many PBS series, part of the end credits scroll is taken up by information on where to buy your own copy of the episode (e.g. PBS.org).
- Due to the Dead: In "Hitler's Lost Sub," the divers continue their quest to identify the wreck because they feel it their duty to the crew and their families to correct the historical record.
- Epileptic Flashing Lights: The original 1974 Scanimate-made intro had this (epilepsy warning for the attached video)
- Fun with Palindromes: It featured a documentary on the building of the Panama canal. The title was taken from one of the most famous palindromes in history: "A Man, a Plan, a Canal...Panama!"
- Godzilla Threshold: In "Hitler's Lost Sub," the divers learn that the E-motor room of the U-boat may be the key to identifying the wreck, as it usually contained spare parts boxes inscribed with the boat's number. However, early in their expedition, they found that a fuel tank in the diesel engine room had collapsed, blocking access to the E-motor room. Eventually, they conduct a dangerous dive to squeeze through the tank, which leads to them finding a box and indeed identifying the wreck.
- Hiroshima as a Unit of Measure: Twice in "Earth from Space". First they described the energy absorbed by all the water vapor evaporating from all the Earth's oceans in multiples of the entire energy production of all power plants in the world combined. Then they showed the brine released from freezing water in the Antarctic cascading downward under water. It was said to be 500 times the flow rate of Niagara Falls.
- Hope Spot: In "Hitler's Lost Sub," the divers find a knife inscribed with a crewman's name, giving them a real possibility of identifying the wreck. However, when they visit the U-boat archives, they find that the crewman was on a boat that sank off of Africa instead of New Jersey, forcing them to disregard this clue. Fortunately, they are later vindicated when they do identify the wreck, finding it is the same boat that had been directed to New Jersey but never received the new orders for Africa.
- Hopeless War: Discussed at length in "Hitler's Lost Sub". The latter half of the documentary discusses the downfall of the U-boat Force against the Allies and their hopelessly staggering casualty rate, which resulted in only 1 out of every 4 German crewmen returning home. One U-boat veteran even recalls something his flotilla chief said as they left on patrol: "Never mind sinking ships. Just come back, please."
- The Hunter Becomes the Hunted: Used repeatedly in "Hitler's Lost Sub," while describing how the war turned against the German submariners."The hunters of the early years had become the hunted of the latter years. The 'Happy Times' were replaced with what we called 'Die Sauregurkenzeit' or the 'sour pickle time.' We didn't have any fun out there anymore."
- Ignored Expert: In "Hitler's Lost Sub," it's mentioned that Karl Dönitz, the commander of Germany's U-boats, was once told by an observer that his surface operations would easily be detected by radar. Dönitz scoffed at this and said "we're not going to worry about that."
- Kids Hate Vegetables: Science NOW explored this in one episode. It turns out there's a genetic basis for this: some kids have a stronger expression of a gene for tasting bitter flavors that makes green vegetables unappetizing. It usually inactivates as the child grows older.
- Long-Runners: Has been on the air for forty continuous years and counting.
- Monumental Damage: Episode "Saving Notre Dame" of season 47 is about restoring the famous Notre Dame cathedral after its fire in 2019.
- One Steve Limit: In "Hitler's Lost Sub," the divers find a knife inscribed with the name "Horenberg." They go to the U-Boat archives in Germany, and find there was exactly one sailor with that name in the entire U-boat service. The records show that the boat he was on sank off Africa, but later they conclusively find proof that it was the same boat that sank off New Jersey.
- Our Wormholes Are Different: Real life theoretical wormholes are discussed during a segment in part three of "The Elegant Universe" hosted by physicist Brian Greene. Greene talks about them again in "The Fabric of the Cosmos: The Illusion of Time", focusing on the Time Travel aspect.
- Pink Mist: "Cold Case JFK" shows the relevant footage from the Zapruder Film. Not for the faint of heart.
- Poor Communication Kills: The story of U-869 in "Hitler's Lost Sub." The sub was ordered to proceed to New York, but the acknowledgement was never received by U-boat Command. The Germans believed they might be low on fuel and ordered them to Gibraltar, but these were apparently never received.
- "Shaggy Dog" Story: "B-29: Frozen in Time". The team spends months trying to repair and recover a B-29 Superfortress that made an emergency landing in Greenland in 1947. One guy actually dies working on it. They get it started and moving and ... the damn thing catches fire and burns to the ground.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: "Bombing Hitler's Supergun". Joe Kennedy Jr. (John F. Kennedy's older brother) attempts to fly a remote-controlled bomb into the Wave-Motion Gun to destroy it, but an electrical fault causes the plane to explode in midair before he can bail out of it as planned. Allied troops reach the supergun site a month later to discover that an earlier British bombing attack had already destroyed the site.
- Stock Dinosaurs: Many episodes on dinosaurs use them.
- "The Hot Blooded Dinosaurs" (1977) has mentioned and displayed Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, Dimetrodon, Deinonychus, and Archaeopteryx.
- "The Asteroid and the Dinosaur" has a small, simply animated sequence with Diplodocus and Tyrannosaurus.
- "The Hunt for Chinese Dinosaurs" (1991) shows several dinosaurs from China and from Canada. The first includes Protoceratops. North American setting focuses mainly on Troodon (and the Dinosauroid theory) and Tyrannosaurus rex. We can see animated Troodon as well. Stop motion animation and hand drawn animation are well implemented. It's also to note the Lampshade Hanging about the Dinosaurs Are Dragons thing during the entire program. Originally it was it's own separate 90 minute documentary, but was shortened for NOVA, cutting some ancillary bits of varied animation including sand-animation and some stop motion sequences.
- "Case of the Flying Dinosaur" focuses on the connection between Dinosaurs and Birds (still debated heavily at the time). Archaeopteryx, Pterosaurs, and Deinonychus prominently featured.
- "T. Rex, Exposed" - Guess who this is about?
- "The Real Jurassic Park" (1993) was made to dual-promote science and the movie. See that film for the stock in use.
- "Dinosaurs of the Gobi" (1994) focuses more on prehistoric small mammals from the late cretaceous of the Gobi. Protoceratops and Velociraptor are about the only ones mentioned.
- "The Curse of T. Rex" (1997) - About a legal battle over a Tyrannosaur Skeleton
- "Bigger than T. rex" (2014) was about the first-ever accurate reconstruction of Spinosaurus based on a newly discovered skeleton from Morocco.
- Sub Story: Two episodes cover submarines. "Hitler's Lost Sub" is about the history of the German U-boat and chronicles a team of divers as they attempt to identify a wreck off the coast of New Jersey. "Submarines, Secrets, and Spies" is about Cold War-era submarines, including the wreck of USS Thresher.
- Teleporters and Transporters: Via quantum-entangled particles in "The Fabric of the Cosmos: Quantum Leap".
- Time Dilation: "The Fabric of the Cosmos: The Illusion of Time" talks about how basic relativity causes this at high velocities.
- Time Travel: Traveling back in time is judged to be impossible due to entropy in "The Fabric of the Cosmos".
- Who Shot JFK?: "Cold Case JFK" analyzes the forensics of the assassination, particularly the ballistics of Lee Harvey Oswald's Carcano rifle, and determines that they support the Warren Report's findings. The Carcano bullet proves to have weird properties including:
- Very high material penetration and hardness. A test shot went through nearly three feet of wood before stopping.
- An extreme tendency to tumble after overpenetrating. The wounds Gov. Connolly suffered from the "magic bullet" likely resulted from it hitting him sideways after going through the President, and the round is visibly flattened when seen end-on. The fatal headshot did enter from the rear, and tumbled as it passed through the President's brain.