Adventures of a Scientist in TV Land

By Gerald F. Wheeler

Gerald Wheeler

Would you like to have your own TV show?

I had just finished my first television appearance - explaining energy concepts on a late-night talk show - when the show's producer asked me that question. As a traditional nuclear physicist, I normally would have said no immediately: any project this far from research must be avoided. However, at the time, I was spending more and more time in the classroom and less and less with accelerators. Although I harbored no secret hopes of being "discovered," the possibility of expanding the size of my classes from hundreds to thousands was too good to pass up. Without much thought about whether I was good enough, whether I had the time, or whether I could even think of topics for the show, I said, "Sure."

This was the beginning of rich experiences that taught me about television, and consequently about the differences between the worlds of television and science. These differences are important to anyone planning to exploit the TV medium to get science to the public.

Science is our collective interpretation of the entire universe. Our descriptions go forward and backward in time and span distances from the subnuclear to uncountable light years. Getting science on TV means presenting an unimaginably large variety of phenomena, many of which are beyond the human experience. Television offers options not found in the classroom. Its magic allows one to walk through 99 million miles of empty space, to travel at relativistic velocities, and to peer into the core of an atom. However, the power of television comes with some definite constraints. In the past two decades I've been involved in about a dozen science-on-television projects, three of which, in hindsight, turned out to have common messages for a scientist in TV land.

Sidewalk Science
The first thing I learned has followed me through all subsequent productions: what a scientist calls interesting is worlds apart from what the general public calls interesting. I learned this when I developed my own Saturday afternoon science show for a local station, aimed at a young audience, called "Sidewalk Science". My first show was going to be on forces. I made a list of all the cute demonstrations I could think of; gathered my ropes, springs, bathroom scales and other paraphernalia; and made a rough draft of the script from my Physics 101 lecture notes. Then I arranged a meeting with the producer to put on the final touches before the taping session.

His first question was, "What's your tease?" A tease, I was told, is a short lead-in that entices the viewer to stay tuned for exciting things to come. After a little thought, I announced that I would stand in front of the camera and, in a very excited voice, say, "Today we are going to experiment with forces!" The producer dismissed my suggestion as boring and detailed his idea, which involved a gorilla playing tug-of-war with me. We had these battles each week. Each week I would tell him about the inherent beauty of physics and he would remind me that there would be no show if we didn't interest the viewers. In retrospect, I suppose he won. I relaxed and submitted to ideas that would make any self-respecting physicist cringe. We created some good teases, but I did draw the line at gorillas.

My premiere aired on a spring Saturday afternoon. I felt it was the best half-hour presentation on forces that I had ever done, and most of my colleagues conceded that they also liked it. But one frank critic, a non-scientist, said, "You did a good job, your demos were clear, but who cares about forces?" I was flabbergasted. Obviously, I thought, this critic just didn't appreciate the importance of forces in our understanding of nature. With each new show, my critic returned with the same question: "Who cares?" It took quite a while for me to realize that most people don't care, at least not in the way that scientists care about these staples of physics. Ask a ten-year- old, "Would you like to talk about forces?" The response will probably be, "No thanks, but may it always be with you."

In addition to misreading the public, I also misread the medium of television. I tried to change television to match science, rather than change my style to match television. Television moves fast, and success in front of the camera means moving at a high pace. Scientists are trained to be cautious, not to make quick, glib statements. When we write research articles, we carefully moderate our statements with qualifications. On television, where the audience is the general public, things are said more simply. But whenever we stray from the precise mathematical structure of physics, whenever we attempt to put mathematical ideas into words, we reproduce the phenomena with less fidelity. On television, scientists are translators, and a good translator must know both languages well.

Television's fast delivery style plus the need to translate science results in a tension between two imperatives. There's a complementary principle in modern physics that says there are certain pairs of quantities in the universe that seem to hold an investigator hostage. As he or she attempts to know one of the pair better, the other becomes less and less knowable. There's an analogous "complementary pair" in television called "Accuracy and Clarity." We can make something very clear as long as we don't worry too much about accuracy. On the other hand, if we go for total accuracy, we make it unclear in this medium, because television demands minimal explanation. As soon as one tries to get very accurate, clarity slips beyond the viewer's grasp.

Producing "Sidewalk Science" taught me that my classroom and research experience were a necessary but by no means sufficient background for getting science on television. I had to learn more about what interests the general public; I had to change my presentation; and I had to come to grips with the fact that I couldn't be as accurate as I would have liked.

3-2-1 Contact
A few years later, I joined Children's Television Workshop in the production of "3-2-1 Contact," a series on science and technology for young viewers. This time, I was behind the camera in a consulting and development role. I was now part of a very large professional team with what seemed like limitless resources, and I assumed that my team experience in nuclear physics would be good training. I was wrong. On research teams, arguments are related to the substance of the data, but we are all talking from the same world view. In television, we were all talking different languages.

One team decision sent a crew to interview an engineer who used an infrared TV system to measure heat losses in buildings. At the end of the rough cut of the final piece, the interviewer turned to the engineer and said, "So, hot things reflect hot colors and cold things reflect cold colors." The engineer, probably nervous in front of the camera and completely unfamiliar with television's pace, incorrectly said, "Right." I immediately jumped up shouting, "Wrong!" The producer argued that I was being picky. It was just right for the piece since it concluded the segment and visually cued the ending.

The producer was missing the point of my argument. In science, one word, or one result, can make something totally wrong. This type of falsification, so central to the process of science, is nonexistent on television. But television people demand excellence in a way that's strange to scientists, and I was missing the point in his argument. In deciding what is right or wrong in television, there is more debate, there are more valid opinions, and there is more intuition than is used in science. In television, it's the people; in science, it's the data. The executive producer understood both languages, and she changed the piece so that an off-camera narrator gave the correct explanation, leaving the visual tone nearly untouched.

While my science colleagues didn't quibble with me about the correctness of the science in "3-2-1 Contact," some wondered why we didn't do more. Why, for example, didn't we explicitly talk about Newton's Laws of Motion? We didn't because the show had to capture the attention of youngsters and hold it for the entire episode. It was inappropriate to do the same things one would do in a classroom. I'm sure we could have created situation comedy about action/reaction or centrifugal forces, but we didn't, because at this level, children aren't even aware of the idea of forces as they are conceptualized in the physics world view. By looking at the motion of a roller coaster or a Frisbee, by talking about the actions of a football player or a figure skater, "3-2-1 Contact" provided the experiences that, while seeming casual, were actually carefully filled with words like "friction," "forces," and "gravity."

I left the premier season of Children's Television Workshop with a new sense of the importance of teams, of the value of different kinds of experts, and of the need to get those experts communicating. The scientist has to have a limited veto power on a science show, but he or she should not have the freedom to control the whole production. "3-2-1 Contact" succeeded in creating interesting and scientifically meaningful experiences for its viewers. This happened by carefully defining the boundary conditions of expertise.

My involvement with a production at a university TV center grew from a desire to capitalize on the public's general interest in astronomy. I worked with a faculty member from the film and television department to produce 12 short programs, called "Skywatch," that have been inserted into existing regional programs. This series had me highlighting the upcoming constellations. Since the constellations are relatively constant, this particular series has the unique feature of having reruns that will remain current years later.

The most important insight I gained from "Skywatch" is related to the role that television can play in raising the scientific literacy of the public. My relationship with television had been rocky. After starting with a false hope of its power to educate the public, I recoiled to a feeling of powerlessness. I began to believe that commercial television couldn't be much help to science communicators. I lamented that the gap between scientists and the general public was too big for television to span: good television was just inherently too superficial.

The "Skywatch" experience helped me realize that television can be part of a larger conduit for reaching the public. I became convinced that increasing the scientific literacy of my audience is not a continuous process, but rather, a layered one. Television naturally lends itself as a springboard to other layers, or conduits, which strengthen, deepen and expand the superficial layer initially presented.

Some of the developments in telecommunications - videotext, interactive cable television, and low-power broadcasting, to name a few - also hold exciting possibilities for new experiments. The number of "Skywatch" viewers is too small for a national broadcast project, but it is manageable as a university or small community project. Whichever way science-on-television projects evolve, the payoff in terms of the numbers of viewers is mind-boggling to scientists. "Skywatch" and "Sidewalk Science" had "classes" numbering in the thousands, while millions of children around the world see "3-2-1 Contact." These numbers alone make an investment of time, money and effort in science on television a wise one.

Gerald F. Wheeler is Executive Director with the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Virginia. A nuclear physicist by training, he has long been active in the production of more than 100 television programs dealing with science and technology. This article is adapted from Wheeler's chapter in Scientists and Journalists, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1986.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin

October 1998 (Volume 7, Number 9)

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Centennial: Once Every Hundred Years
Centennial: Special Events
Centennial: Unit Exhibits
Centennial: The Historical BAPS
Centennial: A Century of Physics
Centennial: Special Features
World's Top Science Students Gathered in Dallas for 1998 ISEF
APS Awards Scholarships to Minority Undergrads
Bill Phillips To Be Honored at DLS' ILS-XIV
Combating 'Science Anxiety' in the Classroom
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Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science