Physicist does star turn in TV reality show

Tommy Lee and Timothy Gay
Tommy Lee and Timothy Gay exchange books. Photo provided by Timothy Gay
Timothy Gay of the University of Nebraska often engages in what he calls "physics propaganda." He says, "As working scientists, we need to explain to the public why what we're doing is cool and interesting." In fact last fall, Gay promoted physics while appearing on a primetime reality TV show with rocker Tommy Lee (though Gay says "reality is overstating the case").

In the show, "Tommy Lee goes to College" (NBC), middle-aged rocker Tommy Lee attends the University of Nebraska as a student, in order to capture the college experience he skipped in order to start the rock band Mötley Crüe when he was 19. Some University of Nebraska faculty and administrators were initially nervous about the show, and about having the notorious Tommy Lee on campus, says Gay, but "the rest of us were like, 'Rock on, dude!'" So Gay agreed to have Tommy Lee attend his class, and to play the role of Tommy Lee's academic advisor.

Gay says he got along well with Lee, who actually did seem interested in Gay's physics lab. "He was intrigued by all the apparatus. I talked to him about how a research group actually works," says Gay. On the show's first episode, Gay shows Tommy Lee his lab, and explains some of the equipment. "I'm actually describing to him my lab. Real physics got put on TV for three or four minutes. I was describing polarized electrons." Polarized electrons, which Gay's lab studies, are basically electrons that are all spinning along one direction.

When he's not hanging out with rock stars, teaching classes, or doing physics research, Gay might be found out rooting for his favorite football team, the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers, or explaining the physics of the game to other football fans.

"The basic problem is that people don't want to do the work to understand physics," says Gay. People might be more interested in physics if they see how it relates to something they care about, says Gay, and "In Nebraska, what people care about is football."

So he has put together a series of short lessons that Cornhuskers fans watch on large television screens during breaks in the action. The lessons explore topics such as Newton's laws, energy and momentum, air resistance, and atoms and photons, as they relate to football. In 2001, NFL Films hired Gay to do a series of five-minute television segments on the physics of football. He has even written a popular book called Football Physics.

Some fellow physicists might worry that he spends too much time promoting physics, or that he promotes physics in a less than serious a way, says Gay, but he doesn't see it that way. "The point is that you can be a serious scientist, and still try to make it available to the public," he says. "You can do both."