Recommendations – Documentaries

In this post, I am going to recommend a couple of documentaries about two of my favorite subjects, astronomy and language. I have watched both of these videos numerous times, and they always make me happy and tear up at the same time, as well as being just really good documentaries. Both of these videos are available on NCLive through most public and academic libraries. However, if you are not in North Carolina, you can check your own public library video streaming and DVD collection. The astronomy documentary, The Farthest, can also be found on PBS Passport. And currently the language documentary, Breaking the Maya Code, is on Amazon Prime.

I’ll start with The Farthest – Voyager in Space released in 2017, which is a film on the building, launch, and travel to the outer planets by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. It is one of the best astronomy videos I have ever watched, and I really like documentaries and films on astronomy. The format includes commentary by some of the scientists who worked on the project, together with still photography, contemporary video, and a great music score that weaves into a whole that is both informative and entertaining. The film captures the epic scale of the achievement, but also makes it personal to the people that worked on the project, emphasizing the human aspect of the search for answers through science. While it has a lot of good science information in it, the emotion it conveys about why we reach for the stars, and strive to know what is outside our planet, is a constant theme of the film. If you want to feel optimistic about the human species, this film can give you hope. (2 hour film)


The second film I want to recommend is called Breaking the Maya Code (2008). Like the above documentary, it is one that combines interviews of linguists with a really good narrative and great pacing. The music score can’t compete with The Farthest, but other than that, it is an excellent documentary. The subject of this film is the effort to translate the Maya glyphs found in ancient Central American cities, after almost all books of the writing were destroyed during the Spanish Conquest. As a historian and a new librarian, I find this documentary painful when considering how much was lost when European colonists destroyed so many books of the Mayan people during the 1600s. However, it is also uplifting to see some efforts being made to return the writing to those Mayan descendants now living in southern Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala, especially since their modern language is what gave the clues to translating the ancient writing. The film follows the beginnings of the efforts to translate the carvings of the Mayans by Europeans during the 1800s, then goes back to the reasons for the loss of the language. From there, it picks back up with the efforts in the 20th century to figure out the complex Mayan language and translate it to better understand the Mayan culture. One of the most fascinating parts of the film is how the invention of the fax machine and the photocopier made such a difference in the speed of understanding. Even before the advent of the internet and its coordination of scientific discovery across the world, these two machines helped researchers to collaborate in their efforts. That cooperation and the use of many minds to make progress is inspiring for the future. And the last part of the video, about the schools in Guatemala that are teaching Mayan writing to its children, is a wonderful use of historical knowledge to help a people connect with the past that was taken from them. All in all, a great documentary to watch for anyone. (2 hour film)

Recommendation

Just to provide a little update on a new podcast I am looking forward to from Vox website. This is the one that I recommended from November, that is a science based podcast on unknown questions of science. I really liked their teaser episode that I linked to in that post, so I wanted to pass on that they are starting up the full podcast on March 10. I am going to embed their trailer here, but check them out on the website if you like weird science.

Podcast Recommendation

There are a number of podcasts on Vox that I have listened to, and The Land of the Giants is one of the better ones that I really enjoyed. The second season of 7 podcasts investigates the rise of Netflix and its influence on the movie and TV business. The first episode in the season is about the basics of how Netflix is run, and the next 6 are about the beginning of Netflix, its competition with Blockbuster (and how many people remember all the descriptions about getting videos at Blockbuster!) and then its rise as an independent studio, creating its own media offerings. Each episode is about half an hour, so its less than some other podcasts. I really like how they present the information. I was aware of the basics of the rise of Netflix, but this podcast gave a really good in-depth discussion about what Netflix did and didn’t do to affect that rise. The last episode is about the streaming wars, so it brings it up to the present day. This is the second season in the series, the first was about Amazon. I haven’t listened to that set of episodes, but I will catch up at some point. Overall, a really good podcast to learn about the rise of some of the big companies today. (The embed below is the introduction to the second season about Netflix. The link to Vox is here to listen to the full podcast, it is the second listed. You can listen to them on the Vox website, but realize that at the end of each episode the next one up goes backward, not forward. Not sure why they do that. If you want to listen on Spotify, here is the link.)

I Love Astronomy

When I was in college (the first time) I seriously thought about going into astronomy as a career. My main problem is that math is just not a great subject for me. It is possible that I could have really worked on that weakness, but I decided to go in a different direction. So all my interest in astronomy and space (honestly, I’ll keep up with most of the physical sciences, and half of the social sciences!) goes into reading about the latest discoveries, and occasionally pulling out my 6 inch Dobson telescope. I watch for the newest headlines in Science News magazine, which gives me a good overview of all the main disciplines. The latest updates on the Webb telescope, the planetary discoveries about Jupiter, Saturn, and exoplanets, and the information coming from the New Horizons spacecraft are all fascinating to read about. So I was excited to listen to a new podcast from the Vox website called Unexplainable. This was the intro podcast for a hopefully new series about different science questions. This one is quite good, so I hope they keep doing them. It is on the discovery and on-going questions about dark matter. If you haven’t heard about dark matter, it is one of the really frustrating questions that science is trying to figure out, but just hasn’t had any success answering yet. Apparently, the observations of the visible matter in the universe seems to indicate that we are missing more than we are seeing. This podcast does a good job of getting across the questions that make science both so very interesting, and also something that some people really don’t like or understand about scientific discovery. Most people really want a final answer, they don’t like the idea that there will always be more to learn, and sometimes that knowledge will completely change everything you thought you knew. But that is exactly what science does, it constantly asks questions. This podcast about dark matter really gets at that fundamental property of scientific inquiry, and as a bonus, talks about the woman astronomer who pushed the idea of dark matter to the forefront of astronomy, Vera Rubin. If you are at all interested, have a listen! (And look, I figured out how to embed a podcast, yay me!) If you prefer to read your podcast, here is the link for the Vox website. The text version does have some pretty nifty graphics and pictures.

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