Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Hunt for the Oldest DNA

Sometimes the inspiration for a scientific breakthrough is an apple falling from a tree. Sometimes it's a race between a train and a light wave. And sometimes ...

Sometimes it's a dog pooping in the rain.

Sequencing DNA that's more than a million years old was thought to be impossible. And it was. Until it wasn't. Breaking that barrier is a story of scientific perseverance laced with frustration, anti-bullying vibes, and real consequences of failing to solve an as-yet insoluble problem. Success was never guaranteed, and it came at a price.

But what a story it is! Watch the program. If it's something that works with your curriculum, consider using the question set with students. It's written with them in mind: to keep them actively engaged without ever boring them. (And welcome to NOVA's 51st season!)

For decades, scientists have tried to unlock the secrets of ancient DNA. But life’s genetic blueprint is incredibly fragile, and researchers have struggled to find DNA in fossils that could survive millions of years. Then, one maverick scientist had the controversial idea to look for DNA not in fossils or frozen ancient tissue – but in dirt. Join the hunt as scientists decipher the oldest DNA ever found, and reveal for the first time the genes of long-extinct creatures that once thrived in a warm, lush Arctic.

Participants include Tom Gilbert, Ross Macphee, Mikkel Pedersen, Maanasa Raghavan, Maureen Raymo, Alexandra Rouillard, Natalia Rybczynski, Astrid Schmidt, Beth Shapiro, Niobe Thompson, and Eske Willerslev.

For more DNA content, see:

Friday, February 16, 2024

Eclipse Over America (2017)

The Great American Eclipse of 2024 is April 8. And that's coming right up. I made it to totality in 2017, so I understand the addiction that eclipse chasers feel. I knew exactly what was going to happen, when it was going to happen, where it was going to happen, and why it was going to happen.

None of that mattered when it actually happened. An expletive passed my lips involuntarily. 

I'll chase totality in April, as well. In any case, NOVA produced Eclipse Over America in conjunction with the 2017 eclipse. For reasons that elude me, they have not posted the episode to YouTube, nor have they made it available to PBS Passport subscribers. Amazon's Prime Video seems to have it available for purchase, though they have it mislabelled as a season 17 episode. Apple iTunes seems to need you to buy they whole season (44) to access the episode. I found a streaming copy of it on Facebook.

On August 21, 2017, millions of Americans witnessed the first total solar eclipse to cross the continental United States in 99 years. As in in total solar eclipses, the moon blocked the sun and revealed its ethereal outer atmosphere—its corona—in a wondrous celestial spectacle. While hordes of citizens flocked to the eclipse’s path of totality, scientists, too, staked out spots for a very different reason: to investigate the secrets of the sun’s elusive atmosphere. During the eclipse’s precious seconds of darkness, they gathered new clues on how our sun works, how it can produce deadly solar storms, and why its atmosphere is so hot. NOVA investigates the storied history of solar eclipse science and joins both seasoned and citizen-scientists alike as they don their eclipse glasses, tune their telescopes, and revel in the eclipse that spanned the continent.

Participants include Amir Caspi, Nicky Fox, Holly Gilbert, Don Hassler, Jason Kalirai, James Klimchuk, Bill Murtagh, Tyler Nordgren, Mathieu Ossendrijver, Jay Pasachoff, Steven Tomczyk, and Constantine Tsang.

The Universe's Total Eclipse is an older eclipse documentary. And I have questions.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Big Vape: The Rise and Fall of Juul

A few years ago, we began seeing a spike in unscheduled fire alarms at my school. The culprit? Boys vaping in the bathrooms during class. And the leading vape product among teens? Juul.

Juul was a phenomenon. It burned bright and it died young. Its story is instructive. And packs a few surprises. At its heart, it's a story of when moving fast and breaking things, the celebrated Silicon Valley ethos, goes sideways.

This is a great lesson in marketing literacy. It also involves engineering, venture capitalism, and public health.

NOTE: This program is rated TV-MA (MPAA equivalent: R). Profanity is not bleeped. Instructors will want to pre-screen the episode to assess propriety for their students. 


In this docuseries, a scrappy electronic cigarette startup becomes a multibillion-dollar company until an epidemic causes its success to go up in smoke.


Two Stanford graduates set out to disrupt the tobacco industry by creating a sleek new product for adult smokers but run into a series of struggles.


Upon launch, Juul rolls out an edgy campaign targeting youth culture until the popular ads come under criticism and spur new regulations from the FDA.


Viral social media videos and word-of-mouth send Juul and its flavor pods flying off shelves- and into the hands of kids, causing nationwide outrage.


A landmark deal makes billionaires of Juul's founders but leaves other employees torn. A health crisis linked to vaping jeopardizes the company's future.