15+ Fun and Free Science Documentaries

Published on Thursday, April 21, 2011 in , , , , , ,

James BurkeThe sciences, especially math, are not often associated with fun. To combat that idea, I've gathered together links to many math and science documentaries online that challenge the notion that learning can't be fun.

Eureka! - No, I'm not referring to the SyFy drama. Eureka! is a series of 5-minute animated shorts, each of which focused on an aspect of basic physics, such as intertia or mass. They're very creative, and great to help you catch up on the basics of physics.

Game Theory 101 - Game theory is the study of human choices made in situations with defined rules, such as games. At this writing, there are several online courses teaching game theory, but William Spaniel's simple and direct videos make it easier to understand than most of the others. To help you follow along, he's even made a free spreadsheet calculator available!

Nice Guys Finish First - While I'm on the topic of game theory, here's a BBC documentary on one of the most classic aspects of game theory – the Prisoner's Dilemma. At first, it seems like just a simple theoretical game. However, when you consider that it can model everything from business negotiations to international politics, it becomes much more important.

Breaking Vegas: The MIT Blackjack Team - If you saw the movie 21, you saw the somewhat dramatized version of the story of the MIT Blackjack Team. This documentary provides a better understanding of exactly how the team came together and eventually fell apart. There's also a British documentary about the MIT team called Making Millions the Easy Way with more details.

The Nature of Things: Martin Garder - Martin Gardner brought such a fun approach to mathematics for the masses, that it's said he turned a generation of kids into scientists, and a generation of scientists into kids. If you're not familiar with his work, this documentary is an excellent place to start.

Algebra: In Simplest Terms - Sol Garfunkel hosts this series where Algebra is brought to life with real-world uses. This series is a great reply to the math student in all of us who is always asking, “When am I ever going to use this?” If you can catch his other series, For All Practical Purposes, before its removed from Google Video on April 29, 2011, I suggest you watch it, as well.

James Burke's Documentaries - I can't say enough good things about James Burke's documentaries. While the zig-zag approach he took to teach history in his documentaries may seem run-of-the-mill to a generation that grew up with the internet, it was a breakthrough approach in its time. It still helps history come alive and feel more real, and thus more accessible. I've even gone to the trouble of annotating every episode of his first two documentary series with Wikipedia links.

The Universe: Beyond The Big Bang - If you particularly liked James Burke's Infinitely Reasonable episode, Beyond the Big Bang should be your next stop. The two are very close, but this one spends two hours going into detail. Seeing Einstein's theories presented with a carnival ride analogy is a highlight of this show.

Cosmos - For many in the 70s, Carl Sagan was the first to challenge their notions about the nature of the universe, as well as humanity's place in it. Thankfully, Hulu brings Sagan's delightful brand of astronomy right to your desktop.

Scientific American Frontiers - This classic series, hosted by Alan Alda, and named after the magazine that brought you Martin Gardner, always seemed hard to catch on TV, with it's schedule of airing only once or twice a month. Now you can catch episodes on Hulu, or at PBS' own site.

NOVA - NOVA is probably one of the longest running series anywhere on TV, having started in 1974. It was already in its 16th season when the Simpsons premiered! Many of its episodes are so classic, you may have seen them in school. To this day, it remains one of the best ways to keep up with the sciences.

Hunting the Hidden Dimension - OK, I've already covered NOVA as a whole, but their documentary about Benoit Mandelbrot and fractals is a standout. It's also a fascinating lesson about how long simple ideas can remain hidden.

A Brief History of Time - Stephen Hawking's classic work is a wonderful examination of the nature of the universe, especially concerning our understanding of it since the days of Einstein.

CalTech: The Mechanical Universe - This 52-part series is a true college-level course in sciences, taught with recreations and computer graphics that really aid understanding. It covers everything from atoms to planets in a very accessible way, including some episodes on basic calculus that aren't hard to understand. The youtube edition is missing some episodes, but you can find a more complete set at Google Video until April 29, 2011.

Happy viewing!
Answers to the puzzle in Sunday's post:

Besides 28 ÷ 7 = 13 and 25 ÷ 5 = 14, there are 20 other sets of numbers that can be substituted in the comedy routine:

12 ÷ 2 = 15
14 ÷ 2 = 25
16 ÷ 2 = 35
18 ÷ 2 = 45
15 ÷ 3 = 14
18 ÷ 3 = 24
24 ÷ 3 = 17
27 ÷ 3 = 27
16 ÷ 4 = 13
24 ÷ 4 = 15
28 ÷ 4 = 25
36 ÷ 4 = 18
15 ÷ 5 = 12
35 ÷ 5 = 16
45 ÷ 5 = 18
18 ÷ 6 = 12
36 ÷ 6 = 15
48 ÷ 6 = 17
49 ÷ 7 = 16
48 ÷ 8 = 15

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2 Response to 15+ Fun and Free Science Documentaries

7:57 PM

I like the second link the best.

9:59 PM

Let's see...wspaniel likes William Spaniel's Game Theory 101 link the best.

I believe in game theory this is known as "selection bias".