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Science Communication

Chemistry stars in Nova’s Beyond the Elements

3-episode series brings the central science to the small screen

by Bethany Halford
February 3, 2021


Four scenes from NOVA's Beyond the Elements.
Credit: Messier Cutting Systems, rtemegorov/Pond5, DimaBalanFilms/Pond5, WGBH Educational Foundation

NOVA’s Beyond the Elements premieres on PBS Feb. 3.

Chemists commonly complain that even though chemistry is central to so many aspects of life, it doesn’t get much attention from the mainstream science media. There are plenty of articles about astronomy and documentaries on dinosaurs, though those aspects of science are arguably less impactful than the marvels of chemistry. But the central science is finally getting its due—at least from Nova, which describes itself as “the most-watched prime time science series on American television.”

Beyond the Elements, a series of three, hour-long documentaries from Nova that focus on chemistry, begins airing on PBS Feb. 3. Each episode tackles a different chemical theme. The first episode, “Reactions,” begins with fire and ends with cone snail toxins. “Indestructible” examines the materials that make up the modern world, including concrete, glass, and plastic. And “Life” tackles topics from photosynthesis to fertilizer, from the origins of life to engineered enzymes.

Beyond the Elements, which is about molecules and reactions, was conceived following the surprising success of Nova’s documentary on the elements, Hunting the Elements, which came out in 2012. “Two hours on the periodic table turned out to be something that the American public was clamoring for,” says Nova co-executive producer Chris Schmidt. “Who knew?”

Schmidt says it was tough to fill Hunting the Elements’ 2 hours. “It was actually kind of hard to find stories that you could go and point a camera at something interesting about individual elements in the periodic table,” he says. But that wasn’t the case for Beyond the Elements, where Schmidt says director and writer Daniel McCabe had so much good material they had to rethink the show’s structure, which was originally intended to be just a single, 2-hour special.

Part of Nova’s mission is to inoculate the public with a certain amount of basic science literacy. We think that the country is best served by having kind of a herd immunity to misinformation.
Chris Schmidt, co-executive producer, Nova

“We were writing and we were editing, and we were writing and we were editing, and it didn’t seem like we were getting anywhere,” McCabe says. “It just seemed like we were digging deeper and deeper.”

It’s not unlike the difference between elements and molecules, Schmidt says. While the periodic table is limited to 118 elements, there are more than 176 million organic and inorganic substances and 132 million reactions in the CAS registry, a collection of chemical information that has been disclosed in patents and academic literature, and a division of the American Chemical Society (ACS publishes C&EN).

To guide the structure of each episode, McCabe looked at the history of society, noting when a discovery, like fire or fertilizer, became important. He used that historical timeline to map out how each of the widely ranging chemical topics in the series would fit together. “It’s not necessarily how, if you we’re going to teach a class on chemistry, you would teach a class,” McCabe says. But for those who think the series might be a good supplement to chemistry class, Nova has also produced an educator guide and a free, online interactive feature aimed at students.

“I particularly like the challenge of taking something that is, for want of a better word, hard science, and demystifying it, making it entertaining, and telling a great story,” Schmidt says. “Part of Nova’s mission is to inoculate the public with a certain amount of basic science literacy. We think that the country is best served by having kind of a herd immunity to misinformation,” he says. But that only works, Schmidt adds, if Nova reaches a lot of people. “The way to do that is to tell a really good story—because people like stories—and find just the right balance between enough information that people feel like they’re learning something and they feel smart, and not overwhelming them.”

In addition to chemical concepts and structures, Beyond the Elements features chemistry luminaries, including Nobel laureates Frances Arnold and Jack Szostak, as well as chemists working in academia, government, and industry. Science writer David Pogue, who hosted Hunting the Elements, returns to host Beyond the Elements. Pogue has hosted several other Nova programs on molecularly minded subjects, including materials science and batteries.

Pogue serves as a surrogate for viewers, quizzing scientists about chemical phenomena and gamely demonstrating chemistry in action. In “Reactions,” he enters a hot pepper–eating contest—an illustration of cathepsin chemistry. In “Indestructible,” he takes a spin around the track with famed race car driver Mario Andretti to show the magic of rubber tires.

Schmidt says he’s waiting to see Beyond the Elements’ rating before deciding if there will be more episodes in the series. But he thinks viewers will find the show’s central premise—how protons, neutrons, and electrons make up all matter—inherently intriguing. Creating a show about chemistry seems challenging, Schmidt says, “until you realize that it’s basically about everything.”



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