PBS // 2011 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 30th, 2011
From a single human cell to the entire solar system.
So, where did we come from? Well, when a man and a woman like each other, sometimes certain things happen, which lead to other certain things happening...
Ah, but Nova ScienceNOW: Where Did We Come From? isn't that sort of documentary, nor is it an examination of which countries our ancestors migrated from. Instead, the special pulls back to ask questions about the specifics of how the human race came into existence. Most Nova ScienceNOW episodes are divided into five parts, but this particular special is only divided into four (perhaps because the subject matter is so compelling and each piece demands just a bit more attention than usual).
We begin with a pretty basic look at the birth of our solar system, as host Neil DeGrasse Tyson and a handful of experts examine meteorites, discuss supernova shockwaves and talk about the variations on the generally-accepted scientific ideas about how the world came into being. It's interesting, but we've seen this sort of material before.
However, the special takes off with the second segment, in which a group of scientists demonstrate the manner in which they were able to successfully capture one of the missing puzzle pieces in the mystery of how life first began to form on earth. By remixing a familiar scientific formula and attempting to recreate the conditions of ancient earth in a lab setting, the scientists were able to create conditions in which the building blocks of RNA assemble themselves naturally. It doesn't solve the problem entirely, but it's certainly an enormous step in the right direction and a fascinating new development.
Equally compelling is an examination of when our species might have lost much of our body hair and started wearing clothing. To find the answers to these questions, we examine several different types of lice and study their DNA. For instance, clothes lice (which are different from head lice) would not have come into existence until after humans started wearing clothing. Scientists compare the DNA of the two types of lice and use the information to determine when they split. The answer to the question of body hair is found by studying pubic lice, of all things. While this segment is obviously on the icky side to an extent, the scientific information it contains is riveting.
Finally, the special turns philosophical in its final segment, which spotlights a scientist named Andre Fenton. He's the guy who successfully developed a way of erasing memories in rats, which could lead to the ability to erase human memories ala Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Fenton is against the idea in principle, but his research could lead to significant developments in finding ways to treat dementia and Alzheimers. There's some conversation about the ethics of erasing memories, along with some thoughts on whether erasing a person's memories might also erase what makes them uniquely human.
As with all of these Nova ScienceNOW DVD releases, the transfer is perfectly acceptable throughout. The CGI graphics used during the interstitial sequences are still pretty cheesy, but otherwise this is a good-looking show. The music is actually a bit better than usual this time around, as the material is genuinely compelling and doesn't sound like filler from the back of the drawer. There are no supplements on the disc.
Where Did We Come From? is a little narrower in theme than some of the other specials, but that's a positive thing in this case. It's one of the most intriguing Nova ScienceNOW episodes I've seen to date, and as such is well worth a look.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated