The Science of the Big Bang

15-Nov-10 12:20 PM by
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Big Bang Theory a show about a bunch of geeks, is not shy in parading scientific celebrities before the camera. Steve Wozniak, Wil Wheaton, and Neil deGrasse Tyson have all appeared on the show, matching the stars' fictional genius with authentic brilliance.

But there's just as much intelligence behind the camera, too. While Leonard and Sheldon debate over quantum physics and incomprehensible calculations, David Saltzberg is making sure the math checks out.

As detailed online at Scientific American, this UCLA physicist isn't writing BBT scripts but is double-checking the theories and equations discussed and displayed on the set. Since the show likely attracts a high caliber of viewer, it's sensible to ensure the crew doesn't get risk their credibility by getting caught passing off unbalanced equations. Even Star Trek, with a similarly brainy crowd, had its science and continuity checkers — though its futuristic setting allowed them to get away with more fantastic postulations. When asked how the Heisenberg compensators worked, Star Trek technical expert Michael Okuda famously replied, "It works very well, thank you,"

What I found most interesting in the SciAm piece was this passage:

There are parallels between Saltzberg's day job and his side job, he says, adding that "comedy is an experimental science." The show is taped in front of a live studio audience. If the audience doesn't respond to a laugh line, the writers immediately rework the script to make it work.

I knew the show to not use a laugh track, but I didn't realize that live shows could be so fluid in their scripts. To redo a line or scene while changing more than the delivery sounds more akin to improv, a talent very different from traditional acting.

But in the end, it's worth it — because is there any subject funnier than physics?

Doctor Atomic's Explosive Opera

11-Mar-09 2:37 PM by
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The 20th century witnessed some horrific acts, the consequences of which are felt to this day. Perhaps the most significant was the Manhattan Project, which, under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer, developed the atomic bomb that was later used against Japan, bringing an end to World War II. Whether science was used that day for good or evil, to preserve life or end it, is something to be considered by all humanity — but perhaps no more concretely than by the scientists responsible for creating the bomb.

Scientific American's Science Talk podcast recently attended a presentation by five surviving scientists who were assigned to Los Alamos. Their musings are more anecdotal than introspective, which disappointed me, as I would've preferred the historical gathering be used to preserve insights of greater import. But not being a history buff, I may've overlooked earlier opportunities these figures had to expound on such matters.

A less direct but more dramatic interpretation of their works has recently been performed as the opera Doctor Atomic. Not a lighthearted musical, this production is a serious and fully sung artistic rendition of the month leading up to July 15th, 1945, the day the first atomic bomb was detonated in what was known as the Trinity test. The full three-and-a-half-hour performance has concluded its run at the New York Metropolitan Opera and is currently playing at the London Coliseum through March 20th. A filmed recording of the live production aired on PBS in December and will likely be available on home video before too long. Here's a trailer:

Taken as a dramatic narrative, I'm surprised by how good a fit this story is to this medium. As the Scientific American host put it, "… this moment in history is really so suitable for an opera because it's almost… Wagnerian in this intent… These people are trying to work together to create this doomsday weapon. It's almost like a fictional story." I hope the opera does these men justice, and I look forward to seeing and judging it for myself. In the meantime, the only related DVD release thus far is Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic. Check it out, as well as the aforementioned podcast, which also interviews Patricia Steiner, a mezzo-soprano with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus who performed in the domestic production.

Science: It's Happening

13-Jun-08 6:05 PM by
Filed under Celebrities; 3 comments.

I subscribe to quite a few podcasts, but I consider only two to be favorites. Though neither is showbiz-related, both often intersect from the topic, as evidenced by Showbits's previous references to both Major Nelson and Scientific American.

In a timely interview, yesterday's episode of the latter's podcast (iTunes) features M. Night Shyamalan, director of The Happening, which releases today:

M. Night Shyamalan's new film, The Happening, involves an environmental backlash, the limits of reason and the beauty of math. SciAm editor George Musser discusses the film with the director. Plus, we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news.

It's genius for Scientific American to capitalize on this current film by giving it a science angle. The general public can always benefit from more science education, as too many theatergoers accept science fiction as science fact. Such knowledge shouldn't stop us from appreciating the artistic license Hollywood takes, as long as we recognize it at such.

For more such analysis, be sure to check out movie and television reviews of Bad Astronomy by Phil Plait, who was recently interviewed on another excellent podcast, Point of Inquiry (iTunes).

Keeping It Unreal

14-Nov-07 11:00 PM by
Filed under Television; 2 comments.

While we're on the subject of podcasts, allow me to applaud Scientific American's Steve Mirsky for this recent installment of his daily podcast, excerpted here:

I'm not a fan of reality TV — I've never seen Survivor or The Amazing Race or any of the other programs that get big ratings. But here was real reality TV, including a real survivor — Daniel Tani, an astronaut who had made it through multiple levels of tests to get chosen in the first place, who had then undergone years of rigorous training and who was at that very moment performing incredibly dangerous work in outer space! And that left me a bit baffled. How is it that staged reality TV shows attract tens of millions of viewers, but the televised exploits of people risking their lives in space are pretty much ignored?

A good question — one to which I don't have an answer. I cancelled my TV service in early 2000, four months before Survivor debuted, which in my consciousness kicked off the modern trend toward so-called "reality TV". I narrowly escaped ever being exposed to this new genre of game show; the closest I've come was auditioning for the first season of Beauty and the Geek. (When they invited me back for the second round, I bowed out — and from what I've heard from people who have since seen the show, I made the right choice.)

Though I cannot offer an informed, hands-on opinion of reality TV, I know it's more than a semantic argument: it encapsulates and symbolizes much of what frustrates me about television in general. Though DVRs do away with many of those limitations, such as fixed scheduling and commercials, they don't change the fact that millions of viewers are consistently absorbed into vicariously experiencing other people's lives. It's a less interactive but similar addiction as MMORPGs, which has prompted the question: "Why get a Second Life when you don't have a first life?"

Understand that I wish to neither disregard television as a medium nor alienate half my readership by dismissing their favorite pastime; otherwise they would need look only as far as this blog or my DVD shelves for ample evidence of my hypocrisy. What confounds both me and Mr. Mirsky is the preference for fiction over fact. That definition could be loosely applied to music, games, theater, art — almost all entertainment is escapist in form. But television, and especially reality TV, seems to me the least productive alternative, and the one with the least bearing on real life.  Or perhaps it's not the medium, but the tendency of some — not all, but some — viewers who do not engage their programs, but use turning the TV on as an opportunity to turn themselves off.  I think we can all agree that this world could stand some more thinking.  So why not think outside the box?