As NOVA celebrates its 50th anniversary Co-Executive Producers Chris Schmidt and Julia Cort selected these 10 episodes (in no particular order) to represent what makes NOVA unique: stories with tension, mystery, and groundbreaking discoveries. “They satisfy this fundamental hunger and curiosity people have to understand what’s out there,” said Cort.

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Chris Schmidt, left, and Julia Court, co-executive producers of NOVA
Schmidt, Courtesy of GBH; Cort, Courtesy of Julia Cort

1. Arctic Sinkholes (2022)

Massive craters, some 15 stories deep, with methane gas at the bottom are discovered in Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula. Halfway around the world, in a lake in Alaska, flammable methane bubbles to the surface. Scientists grapple with this unexpected release of greenhouse gasses from melting permafrost to determine how it may impact our climate future.

“This is an example of ‘textbook NOVA.’ It starts with an observation and a mystery, and from there it’s off to the races. It’s a fantastic detective story. It’s a climate show that doesn’t really advertise itself initially as a climate show.” —Chris Schmidt

2. Ultimate Space Telescope (2022)

NOVA digs into the challenges of building and launching the James Webb Space Telescope and the amazing discoveries that are already transforming how we see the universe. This film reached more than 2.7 million broadcast viewers in 2022 and 3.4 million viewers on YouTube.

“We told the story of the incredible engineering that went into creating, testing, and deploying this giant telescope that was so big it had to be folded up to fit inside the rocket, and then it was launched and sent a million miles away…It was a truly high-risk project, so it was thrilling when the first stunning images came down and exceeded expectations.” –Julia Cort

3. Black Hole Apocalypse (2018)

German physicist Karl Schwarzschild is at the Russian front in World War I when he calculates a solution to the mathematical equations behind Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, theorizing the existence of black holes. Einstein doesn’t believe they are possible, but sixty years later, Schwarzschild’s theory is proven correct.

“You have this unimaginably weird thing in space that you never could have discovered initially through observation. It just came out of several people’s minds and then that led to the discovery…That’s just mind-blowing to me.” —Chris Schmidt

4. Hunt for the Oldest DNA (2024)

This new film follows the quest to find and sequence DNA more than 2 million years old. But this DNA was not extracted from fossils. Instead, it was collected from dirt, a once-controversial idea that resulted in deciphering the oldest DNA ever found, revealing the genes of long-extinct Arctic creatures.

“Science is a major community effort and is built on the ideas and hard work of so many different people. In this case, an entire field of science grew from one scientist’s idea — an idea that seemed crazy at first — that you could find ancient DNA in the dirt as opposed to fossils.” —Julia Cort

5. Polar Extremes (2020)

Presented by paleontologist Kirk Johnson, this film follows a trail of strange fossils found in unexpected places — beech trees in Antarctica and hippo-like mammals in the Arctic — revealing lost worlds when the polar regions were warm and covered by lush forests.

“For 40 years, we’ve been making shows about climate change, and we’ve thought a lot about how to tell these stories for maximum engagement. Gloom and doom are not very effective. Polar Extremes is a fabulous detective story about the deep history of Earth’s climate over hundreds of millions of years, which turns out to have major lessons for today.”—Julia Cort

6. The Proof(1997)

The Proof tells the story of the mathematician who proved Fermat’s Last Theorem. His enthusiasm and passion are contagious even with audiences who may not understand the math behind the discovery.

7. Hunting the Elements (2012)

Hunting the Elements digs into the periodic table and where those elements come from. Schmidt notes that this film, although more than a decade old, continues to be popular and is a favorite of chemistry teachers.

8. The Great Math Mystery (2015)

The Great Math Mystery presents the places math’s signature can be found, such as in the swirl of a nautilus shell, the whirlpool of a galaxy, and the spiral in the center of a sunflower, while grappling with the question of whether math is invented or discovered.

Schmidt and Cort shared these three films as examples of films that are beautiful and very popular with audiences, even though the topics might seem initially challenging

“Personally, I take a lot of pride in making NOVAs about things that you shouldn’t actually be able to make films about. We’ve visualized really difficult concepts and found ways to make them really interesting and popular. I gravitate toward the films that were hard [to make].” —Chris Schmidt

9. Anastasia — Dead or Alive (1995)

NOVA investigates the mystery of Princess Anastasia, the youngest daughter of the last czar of Russia, and the debate around whether she was executed back in 1918 with her family or if a woman who appeared in Germany years later could really have been her. Forensic scientists are able to test the newly discovered Romanov family bones against tissue from the mystery woman to answer this 75-year-old question.

“I was able to go to Siberia soon after the bones were found and be in the room with the Romanov skeletons and a leading forensic scientist. It was so satisfying to have science solve this decades-old mystery.” —Julia Cort

10. Runaway Universe (2000)

Two rival teams of astronomers set out to map the size and shape of the universe, hoping to determine how much its expansion is slowing down. But as they track the light of distant, exploding stars, both teams discover a shocking reality: the expansion of the universe is accelerating. The cause is labeled Dark Energy, a completely mysterious force which stretches space-time and turns out to make up almost 70% of the universe!

“The discovery of dark energy is one of our favorite stories and one of the major scientific discoveries of the last 50 years. We’re recapping and updating the story this year in Decoding the Universe - Cosmos. There’s something really powerful in taking people on a journey along with the scientists, helping them get into the scientists’ heads as they’re asking questions and looking for evidence, and being there with them when they discover something new and unexpected.”Julia Cort