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Science program 'Newton's Apple' is fun, informative

Ira Flatow (rhymes with Plato) is a self-admitted ham who looks a little like Groucho Marx and does a pretty fair imitation of the late comedian. But in his role as host of a new science series - Newton's Apple(PBS, Saturdays, starting Oct. 15, 7-7:30 p.m., check local listings for day and time)m - Flatow wants it known that he is also serious about science, albeit science with a sense of humor.

In an interview, Mr. Flatow, a graduate engineer, explains that he is on leave from his role as science reporter for National Public Radio's ''All Things Considered'' and ''Morning Edition.''

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''I expect to be accused of trivializing science,'' he says. ''But despite the fact that we try to make science interesting and amusing, I do not intend to allow ''Newton's Apple'' to become the ''That's Incredible'' of PBS. My role as a kind of gatekeeper is to make sure that every show makes good, sound, scientific points. It may be fun, but it'll be the truth.''

I have previewed the first two of the 13-week series and what Ira Flatow says is true. The shows are rewarding fun. It takes a few moments before the viewer realizes that his host is totally devoid of Sagan-like pomposity and refuses to accept any distance between science and ordinary people. Most of the topics covered are things that fascinate most of us, and Mr. Flatow gives us the answers to the questions that are so obvious we are often afraid to ask them.

Example: What is fiber optics? How much of our body weight is actually fat? Why do we get goose bumps? What is a voice print? Why does a curve ball curve? In explaining voice prints, Mr. Flatow show us Julia Child introducing herself, then has an impersonator imitate her voice, proving for all time that Julia is absolutely inimitable.

You'll find the answers to all of those questions in the first two shows, and in later programs there will be answers to such questions as: What is life like on a space shuttle? What makes our ears pop? How do video games and holograms work? Why does peeling onions make you cry? What is a black hole?

Most of the segments begin with a question from a person in the studio audience or a letter from a viewer. Then the answer is usually a carefully prepared visual response. Although many of the questions may seem superficially trivial, the fact is that they often lead to serious scientific information. The only part of the show specifically designed to titillate is called ''Cocktail Party Trivia,'' which contains such odd data as the fact that pigeons can't walk and see at the same time. The triviality is just a bit redundant, since most of the items used seem to be no less important than the ''nontrivia'' on the rest of the show.

Mr. Flatow is often an active participant in the show's activities. So be prepared to see him swim with dolphins, pitch curve balls with Ron Guidry, take a test training mission with the astronauts. And if all this sounds like a fine Saturday morning kiddie show, rest assured that adults (especially those who retain a sense of childlike curiosity) will be entranced as well.

''Newton's Apple,'' produced for PBS by KTCA in Minneapolis-St. Paul, proved to be the station's highest-rated local show when it aired in Minneapolis last fall. It proved to be especially popular as an all-in-the-family show, watched most often by adults and youngsters together.

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What has been the question most often asked?

No hesitation there, says Flatow. ''Why is the sky blue? Next come questions about black holes and about gravity in space. We handle all of those questions on this series. The only question we have still not been able to answer with good enough graphics is: Why does a sailboat sail faster than the wind? We can do it by using a blackboard, but we want to answer it visually. We've even set up a giant swimming pool with a sailboat in it, but we still haven't gotten it right. But we'll keep trying. . . .''

What scientific question interests Ira Flatow most?

''My favorite subject is relativity. It's incredibly fascinating to me. Now I have to try to make it as fascinating to audiences.

''You know, I once asked a famous physicist what is the ultimate question. And his answer was: Why is there anything - why not just nothing? Now there's a question!''

What does science reporter Flatow think about PBS's ''Nova'' and ''Cosmos''?

''The biggest shortcoming of 'Nova' is that it is so impersonal, so careful to be scientific. That's why scientists love it so. As to 'Cosmos,' it had its good points, but it, too, took itself a little too seriously. There were spots when you weren't sure where the line was between science and wishful thinking. And all in all, it was too glitzy and glossy, with too much of [Carl] Sagan's personality.''

Isn't there a danger that ''Newton's Apple'' may have a little too much of Flatow's personality?

''Yes. I'm aware of that, and I try not to let the Groucho in me take over too often. I realize we endanger our scientific credibility if the show gets too amusing.''

What would Flatow consider success for ''Newton's Apple''?

''Well, if we go to a second season, that will mean lots of people are watching, so a second season will be the measure of success. Look, I don't have any highfalutin goals for the show. Sure, it comes at a time when there is a great need to motivate young people to take a greater interest in science, and I suppose we will do that. But I don't pretend that we are going to change the course of American science. If somebody goes to the library and reads another science book, that's great.

''But more important to me will be if somebody is able to go out for a walk in the forest and understand something about the bark on the trees.''

''Newton's Apple'' will not only make you more aware of the bark on trees, it will alert viewers to the whole wonderful world of science which exists within the framework of all our lives.

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