As the Olympics finally fade away, we can rediscover the rest of the TV universe.
That includes PBS, which has a remarkable night of non-fiction Wednesday (Feb. 23). In one night, it takes us from horses – the heroes of the American frontier – to a new generation of bionic limbs.
That starts at 8 p.m. with a beautifully filmed edition of “Nature.” Horses were here 40 million years ago, filmmaker Eric Bendick told the Television Critics Association, then disappeared from North America. “They actually came back with the Spanish conquistadores, (leading to) the arrival of the mustang” (shown here).
His film focuses on four breeds crucial to the American West – the mustang, Morgan horse, appaloosa (carefully bred by the Nez Perce people) and the quarter horse … which rancher Tara Miller said has a specific intelligence.
“I doubt you can read a cow, but a horse can,” Miller told a reporter. “But you might be more intelligent than a horse. I’m not sure.”
Directly after this Old West focus, “Nova” (9 p.m.) jumps to modern labs, for the high-tech story of Hugh Herr and Jim Ewing.
Herr was a leading mountain-climber in 1982, when he became stranded for three days in a blizzard, losing both legs below the knee. He went on to get a doctorate in engineering and now leads the MIT lab that does cutting-edge research on prosthetics.
“I am now wearing two bionic limbs,” Herr told the TCA. “Each of the limbs is driven by three microprocessors; each microprocessor is a fraction of the area of your thumbnail.”
The limbs are about the cost of a new car, he said, but “each microprocessor costs about $2.”
And now there’s the next generation. Ewing, also a climber, lost his foot in an accident. In 2016, at 52, he began a historic procedure that links the artificial limb directly to the brain.
“I was willing because I felt that I really didn’t have anything to lose,” he said. “Amputation’s been around for a long time and I witnessed first-hand, when Hugh and I were both quite young, that amputation isn’t the end of the world.”
Progress has been rapid, Herr said, especially after wars. Still, the new steps are especially impressive, said Dr. Shriya Srinivasan, who works on the MIT project. “Bionics being able to interact directly with the nervous system, communicate to and from the nervous system – that’s really exciting and cool.”