TORREON, MEXICO— On a dusty movie set in the Mexican desert, J. Robert Oppenheimer—or, more correctly, actor Dwight Schultz is writing equations on a blackboard. The setting is Los Alamos in 1944, and the actor is portraying the famous physicist as he excitedly describes a key step in the process of constructing the first atomic bomb to the general—played by Paul Newman—in charge of the new wartime laboratory. In minutes the camera stops rolling, and one of the actors strolls up to Schultz and points out that his chalk etiquette was incorrect.

Real scientists, he explains, share their chalk, passing it back and forth like taking turns in a conversation. And they stand off to one side of the blackboard, not directly in front of it.

How would he know, you wonder? He knows because he's not an actor, he's a real scientist-psycho-physicist Brian Wandell of Stanford University. So are...

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