One of the unique benefits of holding the APS April Meeting in Anaheim, California, is that the city is just down the road from LA. A tertiary, confidential, semi-reliant “informant” specifically told me that he/she estimated that the likes of Tom Cruise, Samuel L. Jackson and Madonna had all expressed a grand desire to attend the conference, but unfortunately their schedules did not permit them to do so. However, despite their absences, the close proximity to Tinsletown did provide the impetus for a very clever set of sessions about the physics of Hollywood and an appearance by a few other celebrities.
Bill Prady, Executive Director and Co-Creator of the TV show, “The Big Bang Theory,” Bruce Miller, Executive Producer of the show “Eureka,” and John de Lancie, who played “Q” on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” participated in a plenary session entitled “The Physics of Hollywood”, which was emceed by Jennifer Ouellette, science writer and former executive director of the Science and Entertainment Exchange. The evening event (coupled with a shorter afternoon session) delved into how physics has impacted television. (That's me with de Lancie in the picture)
“The Big Bang Theory” centers around the lives of physicists. Prady, who has a background in computer science, described how he based some of his characters on people he knew, who recognized and celebrated their own “sense of odd”. But he didn’t make the characters into computer scientists because they would always be looking down at their computers and “that’s bad TV,” he said. He wanted people writing on blackboards, but he also wanted scientific accuracy, unlike other shows such as “Star Trek: The Next Generation” or “Futurama”, where entertainment in many ways trumps science. Whether his characters are bantering about physics, reading physics books, or standing in front of a poster from a physics conference, there is a sense of reality in what they are doing.
Prady stated that when he watched the show “Friends”, he disliked the fact that the character of Ross, a paleontologist, only spoke about his science at a 7th grade level. He aspired for something better for his show, he said, so he hired Dr. David Saltzberg, a physics professor at UCLA to serve as science consultant. Prady described how the show incorporates science in three ways: 1) He will leave sections of the script for dialogue about certain areas of physics, which is filled in by Saltzberg; 2) He and his writers come up with a scenario, for example, the characters travel to a cabin in a cold environment, and consult with Saltzberg about what the scientific reason would be for their adventure; 3) He and his writers think of something in physics or related to it and consult with Saltzberg to find out if they are correct.
Prady and Miller are mainly writers, so it was also a treat to hear from de Lancie, who as an actor, has a unique perspective in weaving science into a narrative on TV. de Lancie, who revealed that he didn’t learn to read until he was 14 due to dyslexia, became entranced with science fiction when he read his first book, Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island. He explained how as Q, he sought to embody the elements of science fiction and engage the audience with a bit of mischief, even when viewers didn’t know the full extent of his actions. For example, he described how in one scene with Captain Picard he put his hands in a puddle of goo and allowed it to drip down below the camera’s viewpoint. What the viewers didn’t know was that he was dripping the viscous liquid onto the head of a crew member.
Stay tuned for Part 2…