Why you should care

Because on this reality TV show for geeks, Big Brother meets The Big Bang Theory.

Truckers driving on Alaskan iced roads, women looking for their dream wedding dress and even people having sex in a box. It seems there’s no human activity TV producers can’t make into a reality show these days. Except science. After all, can audiences be captivated by a shy man in a lab coat trying to develop a UV filter for E. coli? Would anyone stay glued to their screens to watch a young woman struggling to design an automated zucchini peeler?

The answer is yes, they would and they do — at least in the Middle East. Stars of Science is a reality show produced by the Qatar Foundation in which young Arab innovators compete to turn scientific innovations into viable commercial products. The “edutainment reality” program is now on its sixth season and is a media hit. Since it first aired in 2009, 28,000 men and women from places like Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, Syria or Sudan have submitted their inventions, hoping to win a share of the show’s $600,000 grand prize.

… the hours of tinkering, the eureka moments and, yes, the inevitable bickering and emotional meltdowns.

The program’s success may have something to do with the Middle East’s proud scientific history: For more than a thousand years the region was at the forefront of astronomy, mathematics and biology. It may also be due to the fact that the MENA region is undergoing a tech-entrepreneurship renaissance that promises to alleviate its high rates of youth unemployment. “Stars of Science shows the potential of young Arabs and the scientific and innovative potential that is there waiting to boom,” says Tala Dajani, the show’s product design mentor. “I think the audience likes to go on the journey from a simple concept to a working prototype.”

Still, the format is not particularly original: 12 men and women aged 18 to 30 move to Doha to work with a group of international mentors and undergo several rounds of televised eliminations in front of an intimidating jury with dramatic background music. The 45-minute episodes are a close-up account of the entrepreneurs’ frustrations and triumphs: the hours of tinkering, the eureka moments and, yes, the inevitable bickering and emotional meltdowns.

Contestants on Stars of Science

Contestants on “Stars of Science”

Source Courtesy of Start of Science

Quiet, hard-working engineering types might not be typical reality TV material, but their ideas are certainly striking. Some of them could have mass appeal, like a phone-to-phone battery charger or an auto-tuning system for stringed musical instruments. Others are extremely specific, like swimming goggles that measure the user’s heart rate. Last year’s winner was camel racing diagnostic boots, a socklike sensor-filled device designed by an Algerian veterinarian to diagnose limping in racing camels.

So far, the 80 participants in Stars of Science have filed 62 patents and launched 16 companies in the region. Of course, many of the non-winning designs are unlikely to be commercialized due to lack of funding and technical support. Some of those, such as a portable heart monitor, have the potential to save many lives. So even if it may not be wise to put all of one’s science dreams in the reality TV basket, we’re still chalking this program up as a score for the geeks.

Get a sense of the high drama in the 2014 finale clip below (in Arabic), and the knotty creative journey of one contestant in the second clip (in Arabic and English).

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