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Series / Nova

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Nova: each week, a science adventure.
The opening line of each episode of the first season

Nova is a long-running PBS science TV Documentary series produced by WGBH Boston, first airing March 3, 1974.

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

A spinoff, titled Nova ScienceNow, premiered in 2005. Season 1 was hosted by Robert Krulwich of Radiolab, seasons 2-5 by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and season 6 by David Pogue.

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:
    • Poor David Pogue has to wear a rectal probe to track his core temperature when testing out US Army extreme weather gear in "Making Stuff Colder". The look on his face when he finds this out is worth a laugh.
    • This is how an ultrasound is performed on a pregnant cow in "The Realities of Gene Editing with CRISPR"
  • 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:
    • In "Bombing Hitler's Supergun", the American solution is to fill a B-24 Liberator bomber with explosives, get it airborne, and then have the pilot bail out and remotely fly and crash it into the target. Unfortunately, the electronics of the day just aren't up to the task: an enlisted man on the project realizes too late that an errant radio signal could cause the firing circuit to trigger early (something that a more advanced receiver would have been able to prevent), possibly starting a fatal fire. He's unable to convince his superiors, and sure enough, the plane explodes in midair, killing pilot Joe Kennedy, Jr. (the older brother of future President John F. Kennedy, then a Navy officer serving in the Pacific).
    • 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.
  • Dated History: "Hitler's Lost Sub" describes U-boat sailors as apolitical, with one historian mentioning that Nazi party membership was forbidden while on active duty. However, this plays into the "Clean Wehrmacht" myth that German soldiers weren't enthusiastic supporters of the regime. Indeed, as the war progressed and the U-boat Force needed more replacements, it became the most Nazified service with young members who had barely finished their indoctrination in the Hitler Youth.
  • Downer Ending: "B-29: Frozen In Time" has a crew finding the intact Kee Bird - a B-29 that was abandoned in Greenland during the Cold War. Sadly an attempt to get it off the ice resulted in the craft catching fire and being destroyed.
  • 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.
  • Elites Are More Glamorous: In "Hitler's Lost Sub," it is mentioned that the German submariner received the kind of adulation that American astronauts received. During World War II, they had the best food, the best pay, better opportunities for advancement, and were regarded as an elite service.
  • 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.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Two in "Hitler's Lost Sub."
    • In examining the wreck, the divers believe that the U-boat was a victim of a "circle runner," a torpedo which malfunctioned and ended up circling back. The US Navy, in its own examination of the wreck and their war records, believes it was actually sunk by depth charges.
    • Admiral Karl Dönitz's obsessive use of radio proved to be one of the downfalls of the U-boats. He would send boats as many as 70 messages a day, wanting to know where they were and how they were doing. The Allies adapted to this by developing Huff-Duff, which allowed them to zero in on a U-boat's position from their use of radio.
  • 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: ScienceNOW 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.
  • Planetary Relocation: The 2019 miniseries The Planets covers a couple of real-world hypotheses about this.
    • "Inner Worlds" notes how Mercury is now believed to have formed much further out from the Sun than its current location, but was knocked out of its former orbit by a glancing collision with another early planet or planetoid. This is supported by the fact its crust is unusually thin, suggesting a lot of material got knocked off.
    • "Jupiter" discusses the "grand tack hypothesis", wherein Jupiter is believed to have formed at about 3.5 AU from the Sun but then drifted into the inner system. This led to Jupiter absorbing a lot of planet formation material, stopping it from accreting onto the current inner planets. This prevented the formation of any "super-Earths" (oversized rocky planets now known to be quite common around other stars) and also doomed any chance of life on Mars, since its sub-Earth size now meant its core would cool faster than radioactive decay could keep it molten, collapsing its geomagnetic field. Jupiter then became locked in a gravitational resonance with Saturn and migrated back out to its current position of about 5.2 AU.
  • 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.
  • Reading The Enemy's Mail: "Hitler's Lost Sub" mentions the Allies' efforts to break the German Enigma code, allowing them to read messages sent to the U-boats.
  • Retirony: In "Hitler's Lost Sub," it's mentioned that Martin Horenberg, the radio operator of U-869, had served in the U-boat force for the entire war, making it a miracle he was still alive by the time they sailed. They were sunk three months before the end of the war.
  • Serendipitous Survival: In "Hitler's Lost Sub," one member of the crew of U-869 survived because he was hospitalized with pneumonia shortly before the boat left Norway. Decades later, he learned about the discovery of his boat off the coast of New Jersey and contacted the producers of what ultimately became the NOVA episode.
  • "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 the earlier British attack with "Tallboy" ground-penetrating bombs had already destroyed the site.
  • Shout-Out: Early in the Season 48 episode "Augmented", Hugh Herr says his prosthetic limbs can be made in different lengths, and briefly compares himself to Inspector Gadget.
    • "The Hot Blooded Dinosaurs" (1977) has mentioned and displayed Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus,
  • 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".
  • This Cannot Be!: "Hitler's Lost Sub":
    • The divers return to the U-Boat archives with proof of the wreck's positive identification. However, the curator refuses to believe his archives are inaccurate considering he had spent 50 years carefully going through all official records to build them. However, he accepts it when they show him the engine room tag with the boat's number.
    • Erich Topp also mentions that he and his fellow U-boat commanders suspected that their Enigma Codes had been compromised by the Allies, but Dönitz and his staff believed this was an impossibility.
  • 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".
  • Wave-Motion Gun: "Bombing Hitler's Supergun". The eponymous weapon, the V-3, was one of Hitler's Wunderwaffen: a multi-charge, multi-barrel artillery gun built up the side of a slope dug underground in Pas-de-Calais that could have fired six hundred 150mm shells per hour into London. The episode details two Allied attempts to destroy the weapon ahead of D-Day: a British bombardment by 617 Squadron using 6-ton "Tallboy" ground-penetrating bombs, and an American attempt with a remote-controlled suicide bomb that exploded in midair due to an electrical fault.
  • 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.


Video Example(s):


The "Bullet Proof"

"Secrets of the Shining Knight". A team of researchers test a reproduction of a late-16th century plate cuirass forged by the Royal Greenwich Workshop for Lord William Compton, Earl of Northampton, against a matchlock musket. The breastplate's placard easily withstands the bullet at a range of less than ten meters. Such a shot was historically used to prove a suit of plate would withstand a bullet, hence the term "bulletproof".

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

Main / BulletProofVest

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