Drop in front of the television, thumb the remote control through the blizzard of images and odds are pretty good you'll find lots of biting sharks, enigmatic mummies, churning tornadoes or star-slurping black holes.
Never, it seems, have there been more science shows. And never have more people watched them.
Sure, American students score miserably in science and math tests, compared to the rest of the world. (In one recent comparison, eighth-graders in the United States ranked behind all but four of 41 nations: Lithuania, Cyprus, Portugal and Iran.) And scientists are constantly moaning about the depth of public ignorance about the natural world.
But on the tube, at least, this is the Golden Age of American Science.
"There's been a huge explosion in the past five to 10 years," said Sherry Lassiter, a veteran science journalist and, until recently, a senior producer for "The New York Times' Science Times" program on the Learning Channel.
"You've gone from maybe a handful of shows on PBS that were science-related to full channels that are completely dedicated to science programming. Even news shows have to devote some of their time to science. It's become a consumable, in a way that it wasn't before."
Popularity has brought change. Stolid Mr. Wizard has become rock 'n' droll Bill Nye the Science Guy. Geeks in lab coats with test tubes have mostly vanished. Today, Indiana Jones-style researchers climb Everest, excavate mummies or dive to the wreck of the Titanic.
But does more mean better? Are viewers learning anything for their time invested? Or, as some critics allege, has the price of ratings success been the "dumbing down" of science documentaries on the tube?
In the beginning ...
When it premiered in 1974, public broadcasting's "Nova" was the only adult science television series produced in America. Today, it's joined by, among a score of others, "Nature" and "Scientific American Frontiers" on PBS; "Discover Magazine" and "Discovery News" on the Discovery Channel; "Science Frontiers" the Learning Channel; and "National Geographic Explorer" on Turner Broadcasting.
That doesn't count science-related stories on network news magazines, or spots on national and local news shows.
And there may be a thirst for a lot more. Ira Flatow, host of National Public Radio's "Science Fridays" talk show, recently surveyed 150 local news directors and found that more than half would like to carry more science and medicine stories.
"It was astonishing to me the amount of interest there is out there," Flatow says. (Flatow has a stake in the topic: He's trying to launch a news service that would sell science pieces to local stations.)
No one is sure why these programs have become so popular.
Perhaps, some say, shows about quantum physics, black holes and the Big Bang fill a basic human need for stories that explain how the world was created and how it's likely to end. Maybe it's the recognition that science and technology play a bigger role in our lives than ever, producing everything from Dolly the cloned sheep to the McCaughey septuplets.
"I think people are just kind of desperate to figure out their own values and meaning in their lives -- the truth beyond that defined by Hollywood," says Evan Hadingham, science editor for "Discover Magazine" on the Discovery Channel.
"If you look at the real science, it's so damn amazing," says Gregory Paul Andorfer, who produced Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" series on PBS and is now executive director of the Maryland Science Center. "What if I told you about a molecule in your body that has enough information to make a whole human body? What about the idea that everything in your body was cooked in stars millions of years ago? It's fascinating. You can't make that stuff up."
Maybe it's simply that it's dawning on television executives, so adept at producing shows that tap deep emotional currents, that they can draw audiences by appealing to people's curiosity.
"I think people have always been more interested in science," Flatow says. "The problem has been getting through the gatekeepers, the people who control what goes on television."
To be sure, the rise of cable television has played a big role. Each new channel adds another 8,760 hours of air time to fill each year. That's made it possible for advertisers to appeal to small but dedicated audiences: golfers, rockers, political junkies and, of course, science buffs.
Science now sells. Discovery Communications of Bethesda is negotiating the final terms of a deal, said to be worth at least half a billion dollars, with the British Broadcasting Corp. to develop new nonfiction programs and channels -- many of them dedicated to science-related topics.
Who is expected to watch all these programs?
"The demographics for prime-time science television viewers are overwhelmingly what the commercial types call the 'boys' toys' crowd," explains Joe Levine, a Boston-area science filmmaker.