Some scientists do outreach by visiting classrooms, tweeting, or writing blog posts. Others help make sure the science in TV shows and movies is accurate. Recent media coverage highlights the scientists behind the science shown on the Big Bang Theory and Breaking Bad:
The Big Bang Theory
NPR’s Neta Ulaby interviews UCLA physics professor David Saltzberg about his role as an adviser on the Big Bang Theory. Saltzberg gives the show’s producers advice on everything from whiteboard formulas to the appearance of a grad student’s apartment. He’s even gotten a joke on the show:
That happened in the very first season, when Sheldon and another scientist have a fight. Saltzberg pitched a joke: When one of the characters describes the fight as “a little misunderstanding,” Sheldon is furious. “A little misunderstanding?” he cries. “Galileo and the pope had a little misunderstanding!”
Over at Scientific American, Gary Stix interviews the scientist who makes sure the meth is cooked correctly on Breaking Bad–University of Oklahoma chemistry professor Donna Nelson. It’s fascinating to read the lengths that Nelson went to in order to get the science right. For example, the show wanted to use an aluminum-mercury reducing agent since it would be the easiest option for the actors to pronounce. In order to figure out the yield from this particular reaction, she had to go back to her grad school roots:
That reagent turned out to be obscure, and I had to go to a German patent from the 1950s to get the information to make the calculation. Fortunately, when I was a graduate student, I had taken German. So I was able to get back to them and tell them the quantity of meth produced, in pounds. So it worked out, but it was a little trouble.
Before I knew that Nelson worked on Breaking Bad, I asked her to contribute her answers for a AAAS 5 Things About Me Post. Check it out to learn about her love of muscle cars and what she would bring to a desert island.
Identify new galaxies, explore the deep oceans, and categorize bat calls with Zooniverse:Zooniverse lets citizen scientists analyze large datasets
These projects are so awesome that sometimes I wish I were retired so I could be a citizen scientist (instead of a real one). In the time since I wrote this post, four new suns were discovered by ‘armchair astronomers’ working on one of the Zooniverse projects and Zooniverse launched a new project where people can classify cancer cells. You don’t need any scientific background to work on these projects, and you might discover something new and really fascinating. Hat tip to Kyle Willett, a college friend of mine who is a postdoc working on the GalaxyZoo project, for introducing me to Zooniverse at his wedding.
Kellie Irwin teaches a student about sea life. (U.S. Navy photo)
In 2007 John Holdren, former AAAS president and current science adviser to President Obama, took scientists to task for their lack of community engagement. Holdren proposed that scientists dedicate ten percent of their professional time “to increase the benefits of science and technology for the human condition.” What are the factors that stop scientists (including me) from being more involved in community outreach activities? And how can we improve this?