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From the Quantum to the Galactic: 7 YouTube Documentaries about Space and Our Universe that Won’t Make You Dumber

By Rob Payne | Lists | December 18, 2012 |

By Rob Payne | Lists | December 18, 2012 |

I love space. The universe - the one out beyond our solar system and galaxy, and the infinitesimal one inside of each of us - is beyond fascinating to me. In the past few years, it’s become an obsession so intrusive in my life that I can barely stand to sit here and type without some hardcore science nerds from JPL telling me something I probably already learned a dozen times over about the tidal forces between Jupiter and its smallest moon, Europa, being a solid foundation for believing the possibility that microscopic life might exist there, or have existed there in the past. Thanks to Netflix, I am become space junkie.

But, recently, the availability of legitimate science documentaries, much less those about space, has become much harder to come by on View Instant. Oh, yes, there are plenty of options for pseudo-science and bad astronomy - from ghost hunting adventures to ancient aliens and this Friday’s scheduled Mayan Apocalypse - but there are now only a smattering of documentaries about archeology, or biology, or physics and chemistry. Histroy Channel’s “The Universe” was one I watched, or played in the background while I worked, so many times that I must have enveloped myself in every single episode at least thrice. But those three impeccable seasons are gone now, with the other four never having shown up, and nothing has arrived to replace them. For the space junkie, this is unacceptable. I need my fix, damn it. Won’t somebody please tell me exactly how our solar system will die billions of years from now, or whether it’s foolish to ponder the existence of a multi-verse?

Ah, but now there’s YouTube, which, if you haven’t noticed, has become a plethora of content both original and official. Of course, there are still cat videos and MST3K episodes no one is making any money off of. But Chris Hardwick and Felicia Day are creating new material weekly, and networks like Discovery and programs like NOVA are uploading their episodes and specials for free viewing on the site, evolving it into a nearly lawless aggregation utopia. Compared to the rest of the Internet, YouTube is a veritable treasure trove of science documentaries. Though, one does still have to wade through the primordial muck of UFOs and 9-11 conspiracies with far too many views, which is why I’ve tried to provide a quick assist for my fellow space junkies out there.

Below are a handful of the best documentaries about the universe that (basically) only YouTube has to offer. Enjoy!

Michio Kaku: The Universe in a Nutshell
Professor Kaku is probably the world’s most famous quantum physicist, perhaps because he’s a rather large personality working in the field of the extremely small. Like everyone’s favorite astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson (who we’ll see more of later this week), Kaku has a way of talking about science that is both engaging and educational. If you get the sense that he’s a little too sure of himself, that’s only because he’s smarter than the rest of us.

NASA: The Space Shuttle (narrated by William Shatner)
Now that NASA has concluded its 30+ year mission to send humans into space inside a gigantic airplane has come to an end, it’s time to learn everything you didn’t know about the orbiters’ legacy. Shatner guides us through the space shuttle’s life story from inception to the tragedies of Challenger and Columbia to the successes of Hubble and the International Space Station and finally to decommission. If you feel the urge to listen to “Rocket Man” on repeat when it’s over, you aren’t alone.

Earth from Space
To be sure, YouTube has more than enough short (2-5 minute) videos that show the beauty and grandeur of our home planet spinning through space. For a quick fix, they can’t be beat - especially this latest one. But if you’ve got the time, I highly recommend watching this entire doc, as it covers all the beatific bases and actually explains why what you’re looking at is so cool. And if you don’t think space is cool, you’ll never be Miles Davis.

100 Greatest Discoveries: Physics
Bill Nye (the “science guy” if you’re nasty, or grew up in the 80s and 90s) hosts this exhaustive TV special about the history of physics. And our pal from above, Prof. Kaku, shows up for an extended riff here, too. Not a lot of time is given to each discovery - after all we’re going from Galileo Galilee to the Tevatron collider at Fermilab a few years ago - but with the ever-effervescent Nye at the helm, you won’t be exhausted by the end. Now that’s what I call “edutainment!”

Alien Planet
Admittedly, that this doc uses the fictionalized discovery of an alien planet thriving with complex alien life as a matter-of-recent-historical-fact takes some time getting used to. It’s nearly enough to make you feel like Rip van Winkle, but the theories and ideas on display are so interesting that eventually it’s easy to go along for the thought experiment ride. Sadly, it seems like if we ever do meet extra-terrestrials, they won’t be disturbingly attractive green or blue humanoids. C’est la vie.

“Through the Wormhole” (series)
Technically this Science Channel series is readily available elsewhere, like on the Science Channel, but you unless you have a DVR you can’t watch Morgan Freeman wax poetical about the mysteries of our expanding universe any time you want. And you want to watch Morgran Freeman wax poetical about the mysteries of our expanding universe any time you want, don’t you? Of course you do.

“Cosmic Journeys” (series)
Another series, with episodes half the length of those above, that’s a little more accessible to watch on your own accord if you’re willing to wade through somewhat excessive commercials on Hulu. Like most shows about space and the universe, the topics vary widely, but some, like the not-embeddable one on anti-matter , are fairly unique in the genre. I’m not saying you should watch them all, but you could do a helluvalot worse things with your time. Like eating bath salts and then eating your neighbor’s face? Yes, like that.

Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. The only thing he loves more than outer space is dinosaurs, but, especially, dinosaurs from outer space.