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« for whom the bells toll | Main | daring to be extraordinary »


All science today has become Real World silly because populism rules! We are approaching precisely upside down in all things!

I gave up on TV some time ago, with the exception of educational channels like NatGeo, History, Discovery, and also oddly enough Fox's Prison Break (it's so utterly ridiculous I'm totally addicted!) But I have read both your review and Phil Plait's of Mentalist, so I guess I'll give it a shot. Thanks for the informative post!

This is a keeper post for me. I read you religiously but am always too intimidated to comment.

However, this time, there is so much resonance about bridging cultural divides that applies to my own rant cave of professional nursing and it's danger of failing that I at least want to offer a thank you.

Across professions we seem to silo communication, develop a substrata of idiom, context and insider lingo, and we rarely stick our noses out of our silos to sniff the air around us, call out a hello or two and invite others in.

In nursing, the intraprofessional siloing is extreme, given the practice structure as employees, further segregated by shift hours, geographically separated practice units, and even further isolating practice areas which are closed to outsiders due to patient confidentiality and safety issues (OR's, psychiatric units, neonatal, mother infant units, emergency departments, etc.).

Moreover, nursing is viewed by media as not-quite-legitimate, always referenced (in the rare occasions when it is even referenced) as a shadow apprentice helpmeet role three respectful steps behind the all powerful god-physician practicing holy medicine.

So far, no one even wants to know what we do, how we do it and what results from it (demonstrably lower morbidity and mortality rates, independent of medicine).


Thanks a million for this blog and for your incredible insights and perspective!

---Telling anyone how little physics one watches is a sure sign of insecurity, especially when said in preface to some commentary on the "rare" exception ala "I don't watch much TV, but I sure like -whatevershow-." And I'm surprised how often I hear it from other physicists.

---I've watched Fringe. My problem with the show isn't that it breaks any kind of science rules, but one needs a line somewhere to constrain the plot. Otherwise, there's no dramatic tension. It's kind of the same problem with the show Heroes. Certain characters have so much power over spacetime, that for any given plot element, you can just say "Why don't they just go back in time a few minutes earlier?." Back to Fringe, it's just not that great a show. Maybe it's just me, but the characters hold little interest.

---As for TBBT, I agree that it's good and I've little patience with those worried about's TV and that's what TV does. I'm just worried that the show has..."jumped the shark." Not sure if I'm using that expression correctly, but it's just not clear that there's more to be told. They need something to keep it going...are their positions soft-money? Maybe the funding could dry up, and we could see how they react and see what life is like for so many young physicists. Or they could start teaching....students are so easy to make fun of and I'd be quite ready to watch them deal with students!

Hey, I like TBBT. Yes, it promotes the nerdy physicist stereotype, but that is perhaps not a bad thing. After all, as you say, the characters are likable. So, perhaps it might motivate people to look past the stereotype that they instantly get when they hear that you are a physics professor. And, besides, the characters do remind me of a number of good friends that I had in graduate school, and my fiancee thinks that I am a lot like one of them, too. If we can't laugh at ourselves, then we are in serious trouble.

First off, what's with that Mark Millar dude? Holy Christ! What a freak. Yeah I've been watching the Big Bang Theory since it started and I like it. I like the fact that it's pure old school sitcom, with a laugh track and all. And that's the very reason people shouldn't takes its portrayal of its characters so seriously. It's supposed to be over the top. Also I happen to be a surly atheist (well agnostic, but I don't like to get the hopes up of those who would convert me) who takes too many Vicodins (I don't take a lot but I don't need any) and I am fine with that portrayal. Now I've only watched half an episode of Fringe, but I found nothing redeeming about it. I thought a little science would come into play, but it didn't. D-

Actually The Big Bang Theory doesn't use a laugh track -- it's a live studio audience. I know, I was there, and they kept reminding us to laugh with equal gusto at every take.

I've seen maybe four episodes of House, and I enjoyed them; if I add up all the bits and pieces of CSI that I caught while visiting relatives who own a TV set, I've probably seen the equivalent of one episode; other than that, I have no first-hand data about any of the shows mentioned in this post.

Do I think that not owning a television makes me morally superior? No, life doesn't work that way. It just means that I found most everything in the cable package to fall in the spectrum between dreadful and boring, inclusive. If I'm visiting a friend's place and they have House on DVD, hey, I won't stalk out of the room in anger (I'd probably chip in for pizza). I just won't go out of my way for it, and investing in a giant electronic box definitely counts as going out of my way.

"In reality, by ignoring such a hugely influential popular medium, you are cutting yourself off from a highly significant aspect of American (and, increasingly, global) culture. And that makes it far more difficult for working scientists to connect with the public at large."

Gosh, what would a grumpy atheist like Dr. Gregory House, chewing as much scenery as he does Vicodin, say to that? Maybe something like, "It's not my job to connect with you. I'm here to keep your legs from rotting off."

See, I want to further the public understanding of science, but I'm not going to shoulder the burden of trying every possible trick somebody dreams up for reaching every last individual. That is neither practical nor necessary. Do I have to jam my brain full of Top 40 songs and up-to-the-second celebrity gossip factoids in order to wring out each drop of putative relevance to science communication? Well, if that job is up to me, then we're all screwed. I'm so far behind in swimming the tabloid stream that I'll never catch up. (Live a year in France, where even the magazines in the supermarket cashier aisles are talking about people you've never heard of, and you lose touch.)

Instead of trying to make somebody like me do a job for which he is thoroughly unsuited, let's divide the labour: if you, personally, CAN connect with an audience through references to pop culture I don't have a clue about, you have my blessing. I'll back you up: if you need somebody to fact-check the physics or the science history in your book, my services are available (and I'll trust that you're getting the TV references correct). If you have a question about a TV show's accuracy -- "Hey, can a terrorist really make a nuclear bomb out of common household items like such-and-so?" -- I'll do my best to answer it (and I'll trust that you're describing the episode correctly).

I do like cartoons, though. If anybody knows anybody who wants to make a book like "The Science of Avatar: The Last Airbender", have your people call my people.

Look, Blake, you're a regular reader of the blog, so you know I don't think everyone should all use the same approach to reach out to the public. So maybe it isn't "your job" to do so, but if you want to KEEP your job, it might be a good idea to try. I think you do that already, playing to your strengths (as outlined in your post), and I'm frankly surprised that you're so defensive on this score, because I wouldn't lump you into the category of scientists I was describing. You're a fellow Gaiman fan, after all. :) But if I had a dollar for every academic (humanities included) who sniffed condescendingly at my mention of anything TV related, I could personally bail out Wall Street. That attitude exists.

So what? That's a valid question. Stripped of excess verbiage above, my argument is this:

1. TV is quite possibly the most powerful communication medium in modern American society.
2. Anyone who is interested in broad communication to the general public ignores TV at their peril.
3. There is an unprecedented demand for science-themed shows right now, and hence a corresponding need for scientists to serve as technical consultants or participate in other efforts to better acquaint Hollywood with what "real" science looks like.
4. This is made more difficult by an enormous cultural gap between the two worlds: there is fear and distrust of science in Hollywood, and often open disdain by scientists towards mainstream TV, which writers and producers naturally find alienating and irksome.
5. We need more exchanges between the two worlds, and a shift in attitude on both sides, or we will lose an excellent opportunity.

Note #2 in particular. I care deeply about broad communication to the general public. Scientists don't have to. But more of them should.

Honestly now, if you think **I** sound "defensive" -- me, the amateur science-fiction writer who was one bureaucratic technicality short of a literature minor -- don't you think a great many scientists much more accomplished than I would feel slapped in the face?

In full seriousness, I find myself in good agreement with almost the entirety of your post. (Discussing the detailed character development in shows I haven't seen is pointless, and if I **had** watched them, we'd probably get off into questions of individual artistic "taste" which are beside the point here.) My issues mostly come down to questions of emphasis, phrasing and practicality.

"Anyone who is interested in broad communication to the general public ignores TV at their peril."

What if one does not "ignore" television, per se, but is simply indifferent to the vast majority of the material flowing through it and -- more importantly -- has no particular aptitude for dealing with it? That's certainly a better description of the fix I'm in. A great many scientists out there probably don't "ignore" television -- they watch this or that of an evening, like the average TV owner -- but don't see anything they personally can do with it, science-wise. You say that scientists should be more willing to work with television producers, as technical consultants and the like, which is a fine idea. However, the number of openings for formal relationships with film and TV studios is most likely quite small. I would like to see a list, or brainstorm the development of a list, of things which scientists lacking those opportunities could do to further the relationship between science and the visual media. What can Jane Q. Physicist do without watching a substantially larger amount of television than she already does (that amount already being limited by the workload of a research scientist)? And how can people who have the savvy which Jane and I lack benefit from the strengths we do have?

If we could pull together a few options which sound interesting and fun, then the science folks who have no particular antipathy to TV might get excited by the prospect and start thinking that the medium could be useful. The grumpy guys who derive their kicks from looking down upon the proles consuming their trashy prolefeed will have to be written off as inaccessible, in any case.

Even within the ivory tower, communication requires collaboration: a textbook might only have one author listed on the cover, but its Acknowledgements page will be brimming over. I don't see why public outreach should be different in this respect.

Jennifer - this was brilliant, a wonderful way to start the week. I couldn't agree more. I love "The Big Bang Theory" and wince only in painful recognition.

I imagine that you have heard of the "CSI Effect" in regards to jury expectations. (You might be experiencing this first hand!) That is, the belief in a juror's mind that every criminal investigation should involve the kind of high-tech procedures featured on television.

There is a related phenomenon I have encountered in the technical forensics community. I have had Very Important People call up and want to know why we can't extrapolate an undifferentiated blob on a video tape into a crisp unambiguous image of a license plate. I mean, if those folks on TV can do it, why can't we?

Ah yes, "TV Science" is very different -- sometimes necessarily so, sometimes not. :) Actually, the tendency of some people to think TV is "real" is an entirely different problem. The show "24", for instance, has proven controversial because young guys training to be "just like Jack" think it's okay to, say, use his "interrogation techniques" and break the law for the greater good. (That might explain why "torture" was so cleverly redefined in the last 8 years.) But the solution is similar: poeple exposed more to real science and a rationalist way of thinking are better able to draw the line between fantasy and reality.

Interesting post, but alas, I gave up on TV a long time ago. Books are so much better! I did enjoy Numb3rs (hey, look, I'm not showing my age, I did the 3 for e thing!) and have been amused at "Big Bang" when I see it.

My only television seems to be "Good Eats" and whatever my daughter is watching in the morning (usually Pokemon and Bakugan, talk about "bad science"!)

Books are awesome, I agree.:) But see, you're open to catching some new shows, which is all anyone has to do.... I would never suggest anybody has to be something they are not -- we all just need to be open and willing to move outside our habitual comfort zones occasionally.

I was hired to write a classroom video series for a certain well-known educational media company a couple years back. The series was intended to be six 5-minute videos designed to introduce high school students to the basics of Quantum Theory in a fun, hip, funny way. I came into it knowing none of the science, actually had to learn it for the series, and I found myself constantly butting heads with the actual scientists who had final say over the project. There would be a line or a visual gag used to illustrate one of the more complex facets, to give just a general 5-second glimpse of what the science said (quick for instance, showing a nuclear blast flashing out of a black body to catch a scientist on fire)... but the line and visual would always get changed, the joke stripped out, the funny analogy changed to something that more accurately and precisely mirrored the scientific mechanics of the point (a diagram of black body radiation for the above example). In effect it turned the video into just another boring classroom video - perhaps 100% scientifically accurate, yet so boring and unengaging that students ultimately zoned out and retained none of what they watched.

It drove me crazy to no end how there could be no sacrificing of certain minutae of specific facts in order to ensure the broader points would be understood and retained. The project ended up getting killed anyway when the company was restructured, so the series never got completed, but I think the project illustrated that inherent disconnect between media folk and science folk. One wants to make sure the story is told and remembered while the other wants to hold scienfic integrity to the highest standard no matter what.

Wow, Brian, that sums it up very nicely. I've definitely had those experiences, too. It's really, really hard to be both entertaining and 100% accurate. The biggest problem with the focus on the minutiae is that, for scientists, this IS the simplified version. They don't always understand that the average viewer needs to learn the most basic broad concepts first before they even begin to MAKE distinctions. You can't close the knowledge gap in a 30-minute lecture. You have to break things down into baby steps and gradually move folks to higher and higher levels....

I have high hopes for The Mentalist, too, but Fringe? When they went off on that Foxian "See? Torture works!" bit they lost me. (Which is kind of too bad, because Walter Bishop looked like he might be fun...)

Not to be condescending about TV, but when mine broke, I didn't get it fixed.

When you really, really don't watch TV (never had more than 5 channels growing up, which attenuated to two, then zero. Went to a University that didn't provide cable to the dorms. No working TV feed now), you realize that watching TV is actually a learned skill. TV shows are actually horribly uncomfortable to watch, most of them. Sitcoms are the worst, I feel so embarrassed for the people on them that I think I ought to look away, like you would for someone whose pants fell down in public.

Although there is a condescending bit to the "academic" attitude towards television, you have to learn & maintain the skill of watching it, and a lot of academics probably don't "get" TV, in the same sort of way that your parents probably didn't "get" your music.

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    Physics Cocktails

    • Heavy G
      The perfect pick-me-up when gravity gets you down.
      2 oz Tequila
      2 oz Triple sec
      2 oz Rose's sweetened lime juice
      7-Up or Sprite
      Mix tequila, triple sec and lime juice in a shaker and pour into a margarita glass. (Salted rim and ice are optional.) Top off with 7-Up/Sprite and let the weight of the world lift off your shoulders.
    • Listening to the Drums of Feynman
      The perfect nightcap after a long day struggling with QED equations.
      1 oz dark rum
      1/2 oz light rum
      1 oz Tia Maria
      2 oz light cream
      Crushed ice
      1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
      In a shaker half-filled with ice, combine the dark and light rum, Tia Maria, and cream. Shake well. Strain into an old fashioned glass almost filled with crushed ice. Dust with the nutmeg, and serve. Bongos optional.
    • Combustible Edison
      Electrify your friends with amazing pyrotechnics!
      2 oz brandy
      1 oz Campari
      1 oz fresh lemon juice
      Combine Campari and lemon juice in shaker filled with cracked ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Heat brandy in chafing dish, then ignite and pour into glass. Cocktail Go BOOM! Plus, Fire = Pretty!
    • Hiroshima Bomber
      Dr. Strangelove's drink of choice.
      3/4 Triple sec
      1/4 oz Bailey's Irish Cream
      2-3 drops Grenadine
      Fill shot glass 3/4 with Triple Sec. Layer Bailey's on top. Drop Grenadine in center of shot; it should billow up like a mushroom cloud. Remember to "duck and cover."
    • Mad Scientist
      Any mad scientist will tell you that flames make drinking more fun. What good is science if no one gets hurt?
      1 oz Midori melon liqueur
      1-1/2 oz sour mix
      1 splash soda water
      151 proof rum
      Mix melon liqueur, sour mix and soda water with ice in shaker. Shake and strain into martini glass. Top with rum and ignite. Try to take over the world.
    • Laser Beam
      Warning: may result in amplified stimulated emission.
      1 oz Southern Comfort
      1/2 oz Amaretto
      1/2 oz sloe gin
      1/2 oz vodka
      1/2 oz Triple sec
      7 oz orange juice
      Combine all liquor in a full glass of ice. Shake well. Garnish with orange and cherry. Serve to attractive target of choice.
    • Quantum Theory
      Guaranteed to collapse your wave function:
      3/4 oz Rum
      1/2 oz Strega
      1/4 oz Grand Marnier
      2 oz Pineapple juice
      Fill with Sweet and sour
      Pour rum, strega and Grand Marnier into a collins glass. Add pineapple and fill with sweet and sour. Sip until all the day's super-positioned states disappear.
    • The Black Hole
      So called because after one of these, you have already passed the event horizon of inebriation.
      1 oz. Kahlua
      1 oz. vodka
      .5 oz. Cointreau or Triple Sec
      .5 oz. dark rum
      .5 oz. Amaretto
      Pour into an old-fashioned glass over (scant) ice. Stir gently. Watch time slow.