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Paula Apsell Tribute: The Nova Effect, by Dr. Sylvester James “Jim” Gates

Portrait of Professor Sylvester James "Jim" Gates.  TERP, Spring 2013.

This “simple country theoretical physicist” quaked when faced with paying tribute to Ms. Paula S. Apsell on this occasion. The bestowal upon her of this Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award celebrates a greater than four decades-long magnificent career in science journalism.

My first thought was, “Why not ask Sheldon of The Big Bang Theory? Making a few remarks about Paula’s stellar career is harder than trying to solve all the supersymmetry equations of string theory.” Legions of theoretical physicists have tried to solve those equations and failed. I hope to be more successful at honoring Paula.

NOVA debuted in 1974. Since then it has been recognized many times with both Emmy and Peabody Awards. NOVA is the Public Broadcasting System’s premier science documentary series — many would say it holds that position globally. Each episode averages four million viewers. It impressively evolved into a multi-media presence through online platforms to the point of one million digital interactions per day! Much of this innovation and success was accomplished under Paula’s leadership.

What is a mortal active in mathematical and theoretical physics research to say about the goddess of this multi-media juggernaut? Let me share two Paula comments from 2016. For over thirty years Paula has breathed life into these two statements. Here are personal reflections on the Paula Apsell vision around NOVA-enabled inspiration.

“Scientists now recognize that public support is absolutely necessary to advance their work.”

In 1998, NOVA was the inaugural recipient of the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Public Science Award. This alone is a striking indication of how strongly the scientific community agrees with Paula’s statement.

“We needed to be in the entertainment business and in the education business; but most of all we needed to be in the inspiration business.”

Paula and her NOVA associates have invited me to collaborate in her vision of the “inspiration business.” The impact of NOVA has been tangible in this regard. During the latter half of my 46 years of teaching math and physics, I have encountered students who say “I saw you on NOVA when I was a kid.” The entertainment, education and inspiration that Paula spoke of inspires students’ quests in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. The breadth of NOVA’s impact is clear as similar comments come from international students from diverse locations like Australia, Brazil, South Africa, South Korea, and many more.

Remarkably the NOVA effect is seen in young researchers. A few years ago, a postdoctoral researcher remarked, “My interest in string theory began when I was a teenager in Athens with my family watching you on NOVA.”

I owe a direct personal debt to Paula’s NOVA leadership for inspiring great students and researchers for my own research efforts. Paula, you have earned an “A+” grade from this practicing physics professor and researcher.

Like many scientists, I have been a NOVA fan since it first aired. In those early years, I never dreamt of being swept up into this powerful force for telling the genuine stories of STEM. In 1996 the late Henry Hampton’s company recruited me to appear with Neil de Grasse Tyson in “The Path of Most Resistance.” In 2003, I finally had the chance to meet Paula on the “Elegant Universe” press tour. Not only did a fast friendship form upon meeting this energetic and demanding, but warm personality, it extended to our families. My wife and I have enormously enjoyed getting to know her and her husband Sheldon (though I am still waiting for my ride with him in the glider he pilots). Paula is a fun person. Perhaps it is little known, but like Alfred Hitchcock and more recently Stan Lee, Paula has appeared in a NOVA production (in period costume, no less)!

It has been my extraordinary pleasure to be a “knight” in the NOVA kingdom of which she is sovereign ruler. I thank her for the multiple opportunities to contribute to NOVA and am grateful to serve (in her words) as the “…‘go to’ guy for episodes about physics, astronomy, and mathematics.” I commend, in the extreme, Paula’s leadership and stewardship of NOVA. I look forward to making future contributions.

Let me end with something fans of Mel Brooks’ character Yoghurt will

recognize: “May the Schwartz be with you.”

Congratulations Paula Schwartz Apsell.

Dr. Sylvester James “Jim” Gates is an American theoretical physicist and is the Ford Foundation Professor of Physics, and an Affiliate Mathematics Professor at Brown University.