Judging the Beauties...With No Second Takes:

Jan. 31, 2008. Shooting the Science Fair for Beauty and the Geek

  • TV listing describes me and my colleague in UCLA Astronomy, Alice Shapley, as "discerning critics" CW press release

    A very impressive, highly professional production.

    As I'd noticed on the few other network TV sets I've seen, only a superbly coordinated army of experts could pull this off under such extreme time pressure. The attention to production quality issues (sound, lighting, set design) is extraordinary. The upstairs church auditorium was magically transformed into ev of a high school gym set up for a science fair, with each detail of presentation carefully chosen. On the other hand, there is hardly any time to think about the CONTENTS of the show. For this genuine reality show, the virtual absence of any script, the fact that nobody has any idea of what is going to happen when the cameras roll, is probably good. Because there is no talking or interaction beforehand, and the cameras are far away and hardly noticeable, the first recorded take really does give an authentic record of spontaneous actions. The big challenge is editing all of this down to something watch-able and entertaining.

    In spite of initial worries, the experience was far more positive, and more fun, than I'd expected.

    The 5 hours on the set went by in a blur, felt like one hour. It's a wonder to see the choreography that keeps the motions of each participant coordinated and (almost) on schedule. The continual chatter of walkie-talkies monitored every detail: "Beauties coming up the staircase"..."Geeks enter the auditorium"..."Scientists move to your marks" [I loved getting called that, more times in one day than in the previous decade.] Mr. Richards (this is the only way he is addressed) is witty and charming; his humor entertained everyone during the delays while the next shot was set up. As Host, he nails every sentence effortlessly. His dress seemed surprisingly casual, but he carries it off perfectly when you see him on the screen.

    Who is the science-fairEST of them all?

    The stars of our segment of the show were the Beauties, all the way. They may have gotten a lot of help from their partner Geeks in preparing their presentations, but for the crucial Q and A, they were entirely on their own. This is when we found out what they had really learned, and as it turned out, that was QUITE A LOT! My UCLA Astronomy colleague Alice Shapley and I were VERY FAVORABLY IMPRESSED with how much most of the Beauties had learned, and were able to explain under intense pressure. A few of them were so nervous they could barely speak at first, yet nobody lost their poise at any point. Some of their demos didn't work too well; I didn't hold that against them, since this kind of thing can happen to anyone, and sometimes does in my lectures. Prof. Shapley tried to put the Beauties at ease by making the first question pretty straightforward, and many of them gave good answers. I was more of the "bad cop" (bad scientist?), coming up with questions that--although they were relevant and fair--we did NOT expect the Beauties to be able to handle. But many of them DID give decent answers!

    Contrary to some viewer's impressions, there was some real science learning in the Science Fair

    Viewers might not realize this, since the editing focused more on their weaker answers, going for entertainment value. We all know that many high school kids (girls and boys) do not get much of an education in science. But the Beauties proved to me that--with the right motivation--they definitely have enough smarts and common sense to pick up and understand basic scientific concepts. For example, in response to my question Tara managed to estimate the electricity consumption of a city. Without even one second of preparation, she worked out in her head an answer that is correct to about a factor of ten, which is often good enough for astronomers. I know of many UCLA students who would not have been more accurate. (The reason she came out low was that she assumed the average person uses the equivalent of one 75-Watt lightbulb, whereas we actually use about ten times that. But I was darned impressed with her instant quantitative reasoning skills. Even her "mistake" that was shown, when she attempted to multiply 75 by 4 in her head, was not bad at all. She must have figured that 4 75's has to be a bit less than 4 hundreds, and just came up with a rough guess of 390.) And Tiffany's answer to my question about what battery power would be needed to run her elevator on the Moon was quite correct. Although she did not seem very confident that a smaller battery would work, she did intuitively understand that it is correct because gravity is weaker on the Moon. I gave her full credit on that one. She might even have won, except that I found out the fancy equations she had written on her poster (the solution to the Atwood machine) must have been given to her by her physical science Geek Jim. She unfortunately had no idea what the terms on it were, such as TORQUE. She denoted it with a Tau, and said that torque was "a Greek letter". But overall, Alice and I were really encouraged by how well all the Beauties did, even though it made it pretty tough for us to choose among several possible winners at the end. In the Science Fair, they all hit home runs, or at least solid singles. Overall, the Beauties actually had as big a success as the Talent Show put on by the Geeks in the second episode.

    Episode Aired on CW April 1, 2008

    Deconstructing "Decoded": Astronomy Debunks 2012 Prophecies

    Last year, when the History Channel started making a new series to be called "Decoded", they told me they wanted to do a section about a highly unusual blue star that had recently been discovered, and the (wild) claims that it might threaten the Earth. A little research came up with a half dozen reasons why that was nonsense, but they still wanted to go ahead and shoot an interview at the UCLA Planetarium. No second takes. It didn't take me long to give my arguments, which basically said that the entire premise of this episode of their show was...silly.

    Forget weird blue stars! Let's talk about impacts from asteroids and comets! So in mid-interview, we just started talking about other-more realistic-extraterrestrial threats. (Countless TV shows-some of them quite good-have already been done on the threat of impacts from outer space). Thus without any planning, the subject of the show started drifting in a completely different direction. But it gradually became clear that my 'scientific' inputs were just going to be mixed in with a heap of extremely speculative interpretations of ancient "prophecies". I got really worried that my comments, and even my participation, in a show straddling the boundary between serious and flaky, could turn into a real embarrassment. So I didn't tell anyone about the show before it aired on Jan. 13th, 2011. And this is not the kind of show my friends tune into by accident.

    Overall Review of the Episode: It turned out to be a mixed bag. I did not feel badly about what I said, or how it was presented (aside from my weird camera angles). The 3 stars, Buddy, Scott, and the lovely and eligible (Cynthia) McKinly, are all excellent, and very sharp. On the other hand, in this episode of Decoded, we all seem to be floating in a sea of vague fantasies from, well, crackpots. Given the very confused origins of the show, it comes over as very disorganized, almost incoherent. You can hardly tell why they drove that Porsche (and a bunch of vans of equipment) over to UCLA to talk with me in the first place. The show never says what they are driving at (pardon the pun). I didn't find much of interest in the 2nd half of the show, until they get to the sensible conclusions, which we spontaneously decided to do in UCLA's lovely sculpture garden.

  • View the astronomical discussion in "Decoded: 2012": UCLA Clip from Decoded, begins at 10:50 in

  • One of my favorite programs at UCLA is our Film School's Sloan Science and Film. A truly outstanding group of screenwriters and film makers has produced some brilliant films that prove you can combine accurate science, realistic characters and plots, and great entertainment. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation deserves a great deal of credit for supporting this highly worthwhile project. Here is one example I really like: Short Film "California King" (originally title "Laws of (E)Motion")

    Cosmology at UCLA's Visualization Portal:

  • Visit one of the coolest computer graphics facilities in the West Photo and Info about Visualizing Numerical Simulations of Galaxy Formation and Evolution

  • Summary of invited talk at 2003 Annual Meeting of Astronomical Society of the Pacific, in Berkeley: Popular Public Lectures: Blasts from the Centers of Galaxies

  • Are We Alone? The ETs Lecture: Powerpoint Slides from an Astro 3 class

  • Summary of October, 2003 talk at Sloan Screenwriters Conference: Public Lectures: Popular Misconceptions about Science and Scientists

  • Summary of June 4, 2006 talk at Categorically Not: Public Lectures: An Astronomer Contemplates the Concept of "Transparency"


  • Zuckerman, B., and Malkan, M.A., 1996, Jones & Bartlett Publishers. "The Origin and Evolution of the Universe"

    INFO about the book Origin and Evolution of the Universe, including how to buy it for less

  • Active Galactic Nuclei, a Summary 5-page reference article, general enough that it's still current in 2008

    Astronomy 278: Graduate Seminar on Observations of Galaxy Formation and Evolution
    Introductory Astronomy Courses for Undergraduates
  • Taking too long to finish your Astrophysics dissertation? Do not despair! Even if you did the research for your PhD thesis FORTY YEARS AGO, if you have a fine and understanding department chair like my friend Dr. Michael Rowan-Robinson (Imperial College), you may be able to return and complete your degree.

  • UCLA College Library Reserves has old copies of Astro 2a Exams OnLine Click here for PDFs of 2a Exams

    EReserves also has old copies of Astro 2b Exams (and also for other Astro courses and instructors) Click here for PDFs of 2b Exams

  • Old Copies of Malkan's Astro 3 Exams, (midterms and finals) Click here for PDFs of Astro 3 Exams

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