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NOVA: The Fabric of the Cosmos

NOVA's "The Fabric of the Cosmos" premieres tonight, November 2, at 9pm ET/PT on most PBS stations. Recommended for: families who aren't quite sure what relativity is, but want to find out.

Starting tonight, enjoy the four-hour series The Fabric of the Cosmos, based on physicist Brian Greene's breakthrough book. I've previewed the first episode of the show, and found it a worthy companion to the book, especially for those who aren't particularly up on physics in general: do you know what Einstein's theory of relativity really is? How about the Higgs Field (and that elusive Higgs boson) -- do you know what that actually is? How about dark energy, or the notion that the universe might be a holographic projection of a 2D version of itself? All of these are discussed in the first episode (airing tonight), which deals with the nature of "space" -- what is space, when you remove all the "stuff" (atoms and such), and how does it work? In a sense, the show is sort of "Physics for Dummies" in that it presents easily understandable metaphors for all of these questions (except the hologram thing, which still seems bonkers), and helps you to understand how physicists have thought about space over hundreds of years.

The only downside to the show is Brian Greene himself, as a host -- he doesn't quite have the spark of a Carl Sagan or a Neil deGrasse Tyson. He's good at explaining what he's talking about (and indeed he is accessible to a fault -- he often repeats simple concepts), but somehow the first hour seems a little flat -- at times I found myself wondering who the audience was supposed to be, because the show mixed extremely simple ideas (like "is space empty or not") with mind-blowingly complex ones (the universe is a hologram, projected from a 2D version of itself). In the middle there is a very easy-to-follow discussion of what Einstein really contributed to physics, and a good discussion of why space, time, and the speed of light are fundamentally kind of weird. The trick is, at times the material appears pointed at middle school students, at others it's very heady stuff.

Gather the Family Around

Because of this mixed-audience issue, I think this series makes sense for families. I can see some elementary school kids engaging with this material, though middle and high school ages seem more appropriate. There is nothing risque or dangerous in the material, and it's presented in a very friendly, engaging format. The production value is insanely high (lots of computer graphics and 3D modeling, even in static interview shots), which should make even the boring bits (or stuff that's over young kids' heads) fun to watch. And you might walk away saying, "Huh, I kinda actually do get why Einstein was a big deal." Seems worth your time, eh? Here's another video of Brian Greene introducing the series:

The first episode airs tonight, and subsequent episodes air weekly. There's more information on the Fabric of Cosmos website.

Blogger disclosure: I wasn't specially compensated to do this review. I'm a lifelong fan of NOVA, though!

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Animals
How a Pregnant Rhino Named Victoria Could Save an Entire Subspecies
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images

The last male northern white rhino died at a conservancy in Kenya earlier this year, prompting fears that the subspecies was finally done for after decades of heavy poaching. Scientists say there's still hope, though, and they're banking on a pregnant rhino named Victoria at the San Diego Zoo, according to the Associated Press.

Victoria is actually a southern white rhino, but the two subspecies are related. Only two northern white rhinos survive, but neither of the females in Kenya are able to reproduce. Victoria was successfully impregnated through artificial insemination, and if she successfully carries her calf to term in 16 to 18 months, scientists say she might be able to serve as a surrogate mother and propagate the northern white rhino species.

But how would that work if no male northern rhinos survive? As the AP explains, scientists are working to recreate northern white rhino embryos using genetic technology. The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has the frozen cell lines of 12 different northern white rhinos, which can be transformed into stem cells—and ultimately, sperm and eggs. The sperm of the last northern white male rhino, Sudan, was also saved before he died.

Scientists have been monitoring six female southern white rhinos at the San Diego Zoo to see if any emerge as likely candidates for surrogacy. However, it's not easy to artificially inseminate a rhino, and there have been few successful births in the past. There's still a fighting chance, though, and scientists ultimately hope they'll be able to build up a herd of five to 15 northern white rhinos over the next few decades.

[h/t Time Magazine]

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entertainment
Why Our Brains Love Plot Twists
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From the father-son reveal in The Empire Strikes Back to the shocking realization at the end of The Sixth Sense, everyone loves a good plot twist. It's not the element of surprise that makes them so enjoyable, though. It's largely the set-up, according to cognitive scientist Vera Tobin.

Tobin, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University, writes for The Conversationthat one of the most enjoyable moments of a film or novel comes after the big reveal, when we get to go back and look at the clues we may have missed. "The most satisfying surprises get their power from giving us a fresh, better way of making sense of the material that came before," Tobin writes. "This is another opportunity for stories to turn the curse of knowledge to their advantage."

The curse of knowledge, Tobin explains, refers to a psychological effect in which knowledge affects our perception and "trips us up in a lot of ways." For instance, a puzzle always seems easier than it really is after we've learned how to solve it, and once we know which team won a baseball game, we tend to overestimate how likely that particular outcome was.

Good writers know this intuitively and use it to their advantage to craft narratives that will make audiences want to review key points of the story. The end of The Sixth Sense, for example, replays earlier scenes of the movie to clue viewers in to the fact that Bruce Willis's character has been dead the whole time—a fact which seems all too obvious in hindsight, thanks to the curse of knowledge.

This is also why writers often incorporate red herrings—or false clues—into their works. In light of this evidence, movie spoilers don't seem so terrible after all. According to one study, even when the plot twist is known in advance, viewers still experience suspense. Indeed, several studies have shown that spoilers can even enhance enjoyment because they improve "fluency," or a viewer's ability to process and understand the story.

Still, spoilers are pretty universally hated—the Russo brothers even distributed fake drafts of Avengers: Infinity War to prevent key plot points from being leaked—so it's probably best not to go shouting the end of this summer's big blockbuster before your friends have seen it.

[h/t The Conversation]

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