The Science of Entertainment

Courtesy of Edgeworx/A. Cross/J. Dunn for NOVA  SCIENTIST STAR Brian Greene uses special effects to initiate readers in string theory ABC Television turned the best-selling book Dinotopia, about a fantasy world where dinosaurs talk and play ping-pong, into a miniseries. The network celebrated by hosting a party at, of all places, the faculty club of the California Institute of Technology. The event featured network executives, celebrities, and an animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex. At least on

Sep 8, 2003
Karen Heyman
Courtesy of Edgeworx/A. Cross/J. Dunn for NOVA
 SCIENTIST STAR Brian Greene uses special effects to initiate readers in string theory

ABC Television turned the best-selling book Dinotopia, about a fantasy world where dinosaurs talk and play ping-pong, into a miniseries. The network celebrated by hosting a party at, of all places, the faculty club of the California Institute of Technology. The event featured network executives, celebrities, and an animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex. At least one young scientist would have been happy to see the T. rex eat them all. "Mammalian dinosaurs at Caltech? That's just wrong," says a paleontologist featured on "Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt," a documentary presented on cable network A&E.

Televised science fiction and fantasies from "Dinotopia" to "Star Trek" have always elicited groans from the science community. But when television tries to do real science, the pain can be even greater. It's a constant struggle to balance scientific values, such as peer reviews and controlled experiments, against the audience's appetite for action and entertainment. "We endlessly debate this," says John Lynch, head of science for the British Broadcasting Corp. "But there are certain subjects the audience always loves: volcanoes, dinosaurs, disasters, and things coming out of the ground [archaeology]."

SCIENCE STARS A great deal of TV coverage might be called "hunk science," in which, like Victorian adventurers, highly photogenic participants travel to exotic locations to do experiments that range from the questionable to the impressive. For example, many academic scientists will cringe at the anthropomorphism in National Geographic's "Be the Creature," the latest outing from the zoologist Kratt brothers. "We wanted to ... experience things physically and emotionally as [the animals] would," Martin Kratt says.

Yet, even under less than scientifically ideal circumstances, television budgets allow the kind of fieldwork that can lead to new discoveries. "We once saw baboons and mongooses interacting and playing and chasing each other," on location, says Chris Kratt. "We got back and talked to scientists, trying to figure out what was going on, and they said, '[They] never interact.' And we had footage of it."

The Discovery network recently funded Egyptologist Joann Fletcher, field director of the UK's University of York's Mummy Research Team, to uncover what may be Queen Nefertiti's mummy. Turning up actual mummies isn't the point, however, but rather, conveying the passion of science that gets audiences to tune in, explains Clark Bunting, executive vice president and general manager of the Discovery Channel. "Expeditions have been in our DNA," Bunting says, "but how do we make them truly special? We can take complex ideas and make them comprehensible, but it requires a charismatic person like Joann." The Nefertiti special certainly conveyed Fletcher's emotions, but the downside to such an empathetic approach is that it can make legitimate dissenting opinions seem mean-spirited and personal.

The Discovery Channel, for reasons both competitive and idealistic, partially underwrites the work of individual scientists such as Fletcher through Discovery Channel Quest. Being telegenic is not a requirement for funding; only intriguing work is, so some researchers who are not naturals get coaching. "It's our equivalent of R&D," Bunting says. "A fair bit of it may never be turned into television, but eventually it will return dividends in a way that makes a great story and great television, and will help science."

Dramatizing expeditions comes relatively easy, since hunk science is often inherently dangerous. A marine biologist's mother wishes he'd warned her before she watched a National Geographic film of him nearly drowning, for example. Producer-director Liesl Clark set a mountaineering record when NOVA filmed on Antarctica's Vinson Massif--and she wasn't even on camera.

But what happens when your location is simply a table and chairs? PBS's "Closer to Truth," is a science talk show, hosted by Robert Kuhn, a PhD in brain anatomy research. Discussions run 45 minutes to an hour in the studio and are cut to a half hour for air, to help cushion against dull spots, according to Executive Producer Linda Feferman. But the main safeguard is the right mix of guests, she says. Among many show highlights, "Closer to Truth" featured the first ever extended face-to-face conversation between Noble Laureates biologist David Baltimore and physicist Murray Gell-Mann.

But for people concerned with making compelling television, blackboard science may be the biggest challenge of all. "Just because it's good science, doesn't mean it's okay to be boring," Apsell says. "The Proof," a NOVA/BBC coproduction about mathematician Andrew Wylie, who solved Fermat's Last Theorem, illustrates what to do when both the science and the scientist appear too dry for television. Lynch, who produced the show, made an emotional narrative out of Wylie's dedication, joy, and frustration as he neared his goal. "It was a love story about a man and his proof," he says.

Science series should range from documentaries to gameshows, depending on the intended audience, Lynch says. "People talk about science programming and somehow put it in a different bracket from all other programming," he says. "But the truth is, what we do is make television programs and tell stories. It just so happens we draw our material from the world of science."

Terry Sejnowski of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., and Roger Bingham of the University of California, San Diego, will draw extensively from that world as they plan a Science News Network that would run 24-hour science programming. "We need to imagine what [science on television] could be, not what it's been in the past," says Sejnowski. "You have to distinguish between science documentaries, which are done quite well, and science news. On the six o'clock news, there can be ten seconds that represent a whole afternoon of [scientific] proceedings," he says.

To make such afternoons more comprehensible to lay people, the National Science Foundation has just funded five magazine-style NOVA episodes a year. Called "NOVA's Leading Edge," each hour-long program will feature five 12-minute segments. "This gives us at last the opportunity to focus on stories that aren't quite ready yet for a full show," Apsell says. "The NSF is really concerned that people understand the reason for and value of basic research."

STAGING COMPLEXITY "The Elegant Universe," NOVA's three-part series that overviews 20th-century physics through string theory, may be the ultimate test for televising esoteric, intangible science to television. To explain what is usually expressed in equations, PBS uses 3-D animation and effects-filled vignettes to portray abstract ideas in visual metaphors. That is the heart of the challenge, explains string theorist Brian Greene, author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book on which the series is based. "Pieces of [quantum theory] can be turned into metaphor," he says. "But it's so far from experience, it doesn't immediately lend itself to metaphor and story."

The series has found a narrative thread by following closely the one Greene used in his book. Albert Einstein is cast as a tragic figure, isolated at the end of his life from the mainstream of physics by his quest for a unified theory. According to the show, string theory redeems Einstein's reputation as a visionary. Physicists can debate that, but it fulfills Lynch's prime directive. "The explanation of the science should only be there on a need-to-know basis," he says. "If your audience needs to know the science to follow the story, then they will be motivated to follow it." All science on television is designed ultimately for children. Even a string theorist must respond to the age-old prompt, "Tell me a story ...."

Karen Heyman (klhscience@yahoo.com) is a freelance science writer in Santa Monica, Calif.


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