Motherboard is giving “Going Deep With David Rees” some pretty high praise calling it “the best science show since “Cosmos”
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August 5, 2014 // 07:00 AM EST
Good afternoon. Look at your feet: are you wearing sneakers? Any lace-up shoe will do, actually. I just want you to consider your shoelaces for a moment. Do you remember when you learned to tie them? Perhaps you were instructed in the double bunny-ear method, or taught to pin your pointer finger down hard on the knot as you fastened it. You likely haven’t revised your shoelace-tying strategy since. If there’s a better method for tying your shoes, you aren’t employing it.
Okay, now look at your drink. Does it have ice cubes in it? If so, those cubes are probably not perfectly symmetrical and crystal-clear as Maine lake ice, engineered by the forces of nature to melt with the maximum possible efficiency. You didn’t plane their surfaces by hand on a low-temperature iron. They won’t outlive you; you won’t hand them down to your grandchildren or trust them to the geological record.
All of this is to say: it’s amateur hour. No matter how conscientious a person you are, there are thousands of things in your life—mundane things, like shoelaces and ice cubes—that you likely give no thought to whatsoever, things you figure other people, in generations preceding your own, have figured out on your behalf.
No sense in bothering to improve the ice cube, after all, or to find the most efficient shoelace-tying strategy, when the universe is plunged into chaos and you have a life to lead. No sense going deep.
David Rees, former Get Your War On cartoonist, sometime artisanal pencil-sharpener—Motherboard had the pleasure of visiting that whimsical operation—and now host of the unbelievably good new National Geographic Channel show Going Deep with David Rees, does not share this opinion.
For David Rees, “going deep” is the essence of knowledge, a journey where the quest for the perfect ice cube—season one, episode one—is an ontological safari that begins with 40,000 year-old ice cores, takes a Mister Rogers-esque spin through a commercial ice factory, and ends, inexplicably and delightfully, at a Buddhist monastery, where Rees, having realized that even the perfect ice cube must melt someday, demands that a monk justify the nature of impermanence.
In an episode on shoelace-tying, Rees goes bonkers with a 50-foot shoelace. Image: National Geographic.
Going Deep with David Rees is the ur-science show. Although Rees is shockingly funny—his surrealist, self-deprecating style will make you bark with laughter at unexpected moments—and slightly unhinged, he has already taught me more about the nature of reality than Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Mr. Wizard, and an entire childhood of rerun Bill Nye the Science Guy episodes combined. He may be the most able and brilliant science educator since Carl Sagan. That’s because the show’s conceit evokes no less than the nature of scientific inquiry itself.
Rees aims to investigate the mechanisms of the mundane, and always begins episodes with an inane question: How do I dig a hole? How do I tie my shoelaces? How do I open a door?
Fine, that seems dumb. But consider these other seemingly inane questions, asked perpetually by children: Why is the sky blue? Why do things fall down when we let go of them? The historical practice of science is rooted in such lines of questioning.
A hypothesis is usually a deceptively simple question; an experiment is the process of going deep. And science is the practice of going all the way deep, until the bottom is reached—or the semblance of one, only solid until the next generation starts tunneling.
Nothing is too mundane for this show, not even how to open a door. Photo: National Geographic.
Science programming on television is normally concerned with simplifying the complex. It frequently begins with the large and impressive; journeys to the far reaches of the universe and the mumbo-jumbo of particle physics hold a certain allure to viewers accustomed to flashy and fantastic programming. Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, after all. With the assistance of flowery metaphor, classroom demonstrations, and, more recently, lots of CGI, the ungodly responsibility of untangling that magic has befallen—and felled—TV hosts for decades.
David Rees takes the opposite tack, which is his genius. The show is about “taking something familiar and making it weird and exotic,” he recently explained to Splitsider, “anything in the world that seems like there’s nothing to learn about, that’s what we want to learn about.” OnGoing Deep, we are never treated to voyages on the Ship of the Imagination or teleported to a world of vibrating strings and ephemeral Higgs-Boson particles.
Instead, Rees apes the brute enthusiasm of the Mythbusters; he exploits the over-the-top naiveté now expected of unscripted television hosts to ask the kinds of profoundly stupid questions only posed by children, philosophers, and those tripping out of their minds on drugs. In the first episode, while visiting the National Ice Core Lab in Colorado, he screeches to Dr. Jim White, a professional ice scientist, “WHAT IS ICE?”
The thing is, what is ice? I didn’t know, not really, until I grokked it from watching Rees’ breathless, irreverent, deceptively profound investigations. Nor did I know that a knot is never stronger than the shoelace itself, or that something as simple as opening a door is a heuristic problem as profound than anything in the universe. The world is full of wondrous truths, and it doesn’t take an expedition to the Arctic or an electron-scanning microscope to reveal them—it just takes the willingness, and the humility, to go deep.