The Physicist Behind "The Big Bang Theory's" Nerd Cred
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because someone’s been squeezing science into your TV-watching — and his name is David Saltzberg, sitcom science consultant.
By Melissa Pandika
As if a sitcom about four Caltech scientists weren’t geeky enough, real-life UCLA astrophysicist David Saltzberg elevates The Big Bang Theory to the highest echelon of geekdom.
When Saltzberg isn’t studying high-energy particle physics and high-energy neutrino astronomy, he works as the hit CBS sitcom’s science consultant, ensuring that the physics is legit, from Sheldon’s dense lines to the equations on the whiteboards. While forensic dramas like CSI and NCIS draw criticism for their scientifically improbable scenarios, The Big Bang Theory draws praise from physicists, fanboys and fangirls alike for its meticulous accuracy and occasional hat-tips to the science world’s hip and happening.
Positive, realistic depictions of scientists and engineers can influence whether viewers follow in their career footsteps….
“It’s the opposite of a NOVA show,” Saltzberg says. Rather than plumbing the depths of a scientific topic in an hour-long documentary, The Big Bang Theory might drop terms like “muons” and “dark matter” but leaves it up to viewers to Google them. Even if they don’t, experts say they still pick up on the show’s character portrayals. Positive, realistic depictions of scientists and engineers can influence whether viewers follow in their career footsteps, or trust them when considering climate change and other issues.
“This is why the work that David does is so important, even on a comedy like The Big Bang Theory , which essentially elevated the geeky engineer and the nerdy scientist to a cool place,” said Ann Merchant, deputy executive director of the Science & Entertainment Exchange.
Sometimes Saltzberg does see his work spark curiosity in young viewers. Like the time a 14-year-old named Olivia emailed him about an episode in which main character Leonard Hofstadter kisses his lab mate Leslie Hinkle. “Well, the Earth didn’t move. Except for the 383 miles it was going to anyway,” Leonard says. Olivia had struggled to calculate the distance herself based on the Earth’s rotation. So Saltzberg suggested considering, for example, the solar system’s motion around the galaxy. She eventually responded with the right answer. Saltzberg says, “If there’s one student e-mailing me about it, how many other hundreds are looking it up on their own? ”
Slightly built and quick to smile, Saltzberg works from a bright office lined with physics textbooks, photos of students, and trunks filled with power supplies he plans to bring to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva. Galileo and Einstein dolls are perched on a bookshelf.
Saltzberg traces his love for physics to his childhood in New Jersey — about four miles from the lab where astronomers first heard the big bang’s background radiation. He grew up building circuits alongside his father, an electrical engineer. In high school, he gravitated to physics when he realized it formed the foundation of biology and chemistry.
He began working on The Big Bang Theory in 2006, when co-creators Bill Prady and Chuck Lorre were producing the first pilot episode. Lorre initially contacted Saltzberg’s colleague to review the script and advise the production design. But since he lived in Hawaii, he referred Lorre to Saltzberg instead.
Just for fun, he also plants “little time bombs” — inside jokes that reference his colleagues’ and students’ research.
The bulk of Saltzberg’s work involves reviewing drafts of scripts. Often the scientific dialogue will already be written, and he makes just a few tweaks. But in many cases, the script arrives with empty brackets reading “Insert Science Here.” Filling them in is a bit like solving a physics problem. The writers set parameters, like the length of the dialogue or whether viewers should be able to understand it. “There’s a keyhole that needs the right key,” Saltzberg says.
But just for fun, he also plants “little time bombs” — inside jokes that reference his colleagues’ and students’ research. Once he slipped in a reference to a device called an integrated ion trap and time-of-flight-mass-spectrometer, which one of his graduate students had built. The propmaster saw it and made a replica for Leonard’s lab.
He also draws out each episode’s whiteboards. Once he had to come up with an equation for the characters to solve over several episodes. “It’s hard to think about a problem that would work that wasn’t already solved,” he said. But when he started slogging through an equation for his own research on a particle called an axion, he worked it into the script.
Saltzberg attends the show’s live taping every week. Initially he thought he’d need to coach the actors on their lines — but he rarely does. He’s regularly blown away by Jim Parson’s breezy delivery of Sheldon Cooper’s jargon-laden lines. “There’s something to saying the scientific words that’s more than just pronunciation, but also the rhythm that makes you feel like you own it. He does it.”
Usually, Saltzberg hangs out on-set to bounce ideas off the writers. But he notes, “We’re not the science police. It’s up to [the writers] to decide what they want to use.” He also answers last-minute questions and checks the accuracy of off-the-cuff jokes — although he no longer pitches his own. “It’s like if I go to a party and people tell me their new theory of gravity, and I’ll just try to be polite.”
He admits that it’s impossible to know whether all this work helps the show’s success. But besides fending off nerd rage, it might actually help boost the general public’s attitude toward science. The Higher Education Funding Council for England reported a 10% increase in enrollment in university physics programs from 2008 to 2009, when the show was first broadcast in the U.K., and from 2010 to 2011. “The show and David deserve credit for this,” said UCLA neurophysicist Mayank Mehta.
Saltzberg is also making a big bang at the LHC, a mammoth underground tube that accelerates beams of hydrogen protons at high speeds. Smashing together two beams traveling in opposite directions causes the protons to disintegrate into smaller particles, including the aforementioned muons. Muons stay intact long enough to be measured and can signify the presence of other particles, including those yet to be discovered. Saltzberg is installing new muon detectors in preparation for the LHC to accelerate particles at its full energy next year. Much like Saltzberg does on TV, he makes his research at CERN accessible, allowing even undergraduates to work at the particle physics mecca.
Although only a handful of people might read Saltzberg’s scientific papers, compared with the millions of viewers who tune in to each episode of The Big Bang Theory, he savors both experiences. “[The show] is just a little aspect of my scientific career,” he says. “I hope I’ll be spending 40 years doing research and teaching, and so here’s a little 10-year piece.” A decade of making it cool to geek out? We’ll take it.
- Melissa Pandika, OZY AuthorContact Melissa Pandika