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Eureka! Real science breaks into TV shows

Once ignored or abused to spice up plots, bona fide study now fills prime-time lineups.

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“We now are basically in charge of all the mathematics in the show,” says Mr. Pegg, who, as an employee of the math and computational software company Wolfram Research in Champaign, Ill., stays abreast of cutting-edge research. “We will look through some of the mathematical papers we have access to and give them snapshots of pieces that would be really good to add.”

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The scientific researchers on the writing staff of “Fringe” go one step further: They imagine what scientists will discover five minutes from now. The show’s Dr. Walter Bishop – part Albert Einstein, part Dr. Frankenstein – assists an FBI task force investigating supernatural cases. Imagine, if you will, an “X-Files” in which the X Factor has a fairly plausible scientific explanation.

“We don’t like to say we’re a science-fiction show,” says Robert Chiappetta, a staff writer for the show who often calls his father, a professor of science education at the University of Houston, for scientific answers. “We like to say we’re a ‘science next’ show.”

Fellow researcher Glen Whitman says they often try to wrap a story around a fascinating piece of science. In one episode, the writers had to create some way to track down a man with an enhanced electromagnetic signature. The two researchers recalled reading about how pigeons use Earth’s magnetic field to navigate. As it turns out, homing pigeons have an enhanced magnetic sense thanks to beaks that are wired to nerves containing magnetic particles. Just as scientists have “reprogrammed” pigeons’ sense of magnetic north in experiments, the show’s scientists similarly manipulate the birds to find their man.

Fringe” is precisely the kind of show that the characters in “The Big Bang Theory” like to pore over. The sitcom regularly includes vignettes in which the four scientists debate science fiction and science fact. The sitcom’s creators, Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, have a similar propensity. When they’re not obsessing over “Battlestar Galactica,” they’re keeping up on science literature.

“Both Chuck and I are science geeks,” says Mr. Prady, who works closely with Saltzberg even on the set. “What’s great about David is he’s first and foremost a teacher. Periodically, something will come up and we’ll have a discussion and you’ll get a little class on it.”

Saltzberg, who is in Antarctica building the world’s largest neutrino telescope, loves feedback about his contributions. “I think what’s fun for me is to find when it generates some buzz on the Internet afterward. Especially when people didn’t expect the show to get the science right.”