Albert Einstein, hidden formulas for fusion energy, stellarators, and time travel. For Drew Lindo, writer and producer for Quantum Leap, high-level science was at the heart of his episode “Secret History.” Quantum Leap is a revival of the original series (1989–1993) with Dr. Ben Song, played by Raymond Lee, who becomes lost in the past and must change history in the hope of getting back to the present.
While writing for season two, along with the writers’ room, Drew determined that his episode would take place in an exciting moment for science: 1950s Princeton, with Einstein’s legacy at the core of the mystery. As Drew explained, that was a “very exciting time of fusion and relativity, it seemed like a great world to do an episode of the show, but I knew that it would require information I did not possess … so I immediately knew we would need a consultant to help.” Drew needed an expert not only to help with the science in the plot but also in production; what would go on the chalk boards, what should the 1950s fusion power device, called a stellarator, look like?
Writer/Producer Drew Lindo and Director Pamela Romanowsky posing with the Stellarator prop.
After a referral to The Science & Entertainment Exchange, Drew was introduced to perhaps the perfect person to solve his conundrums, Dr. Stephanie Diem, who goes by Steffi. Steffi has a PhD in plasma physics and fusion energy and got her degree at Princeton, the central setting of the episode. In addition to being a consultant and a member of the National Academies’ New Voices in Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, Steffi is also a professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she studies fusion energy. As she concisely described her work, “How do we use magnets to confine the hottest thing in the universe to get it to fuse together? The ultimate goal is clean energy for everyone.” Steffi’s work involves using a Tokamak, a magnetic confinement device that is being developed to produce controlled thermonuclear fusion power.
Dr. Steffi Diem’s cameo name plate, outside the office where Hannah solves the equation.
Steffi was looking forward to the consultation because her studies today evolved directly from the moment in history of the episode. When Drew first talked to her, the script was not written yet; he was in the outline stage and had several story beat questions that needed concrete scientific answers in order for him to move forward. For context, without getting into spoiler territory, here is the pitch for the episode: At Princeton University in 1955, Dr. Ben Song must find a formula hidden by Albert Einstein that holds the key to nuclear energy before the Nazis get it. He is surprised to run into a familiar face on campus.
Steffi was excited to dive in. “The questions that [Drew] sent to me really inspired my curiosity. To solve those kinds of puzzles, how do you translate it to screen?” As a big fan of the original Quantum Leap series, which helped lead her to become a scientist in the first place, Steffi worked with Drew to infuse that same inspiration and sense of discovery in his episode.
Drew crafted the story to feel like the two physicists (the episode’s main characters) were going on the most exciting treasure hunt possible to uncover Einstein’s lost equations. Steffi helped craft the turns along the way. Her consultation ranged from references as to how the original stellarator machine should look, to physics equations, to a key clue hidden in the Princeton library, a puzzle left behind by Einstein himself. She said there was a particular pleasure in turning over her real-life class notes and then seeing them on screen. Drew even found a way for the National Academy of Sciences to make a cameo … but you will have to watch to find out. The episode is fun, totally suspenseful, surprisingly emotional, and all in, a love letter to physics.
The life-size prop replica of The Stellarator.
As for the experience of working with The Exchange, the consultation was a first for both Drew and Steffi. “Definitely will not be the last,” Drew added. “[Steffi]’s enthusiasm was just so wonderful…. Her ideas were so helpful.” Ditto for Steffi, who explained that there was another level of resonance for her—getting to see her own experiences working in a male-dominated field reflected in the episode’s story of a female physicist in 1950s Princeton. In one scene, the character of Hannah, a physicist, outdoes a room full of chauvinist male scientists by solving an equation. For Steffi, “that was amazing … and just seeing that come across screen and seeing my notes from my subfield, I just loved it.”
Hannah, a physicist, outdoes a room full of men. The equations on the chalk board were provided by Dr. Steffi Diem.
Drew summed it up with a comment on The Exchange itself, “It’s an amazing resource with really collaborative people like [Steffi]. Science is about sharing knowledge, and this is sharing knowledge to improve stories and increase the curiosity and engagement for audiences…. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
Drew’s episode premiered on Wednesday, November 15, and is available to watch now. Quantum Leap airs on Wednesdays at 8PM on NBC and is available to stream the next day on Peacock.