Skip to main content

The brain behind TV's The Big Bang Theory

For those who live, breathe and laugh physics, one show entangles them all: The Big Bang Theory. To make the show's jokes timely and accurate, while sprinkling the sets with authentic scientific plots and posters, the show's writers depend on one physicist, David Saltzberg.

Credit: Warner Bros. Television Entertainment/Greg Gayne (c) 2012 WBEI. All rights reserved.

The brain behind TV’s The Big Bang Theory

Brad Hooker talks with David Saltzberg, science advisor to The Big Bang Theory

For those who live, breathe and laugh physics, one show entangles them all: The Big Bang Theory. Now in its fifth season on CBS, the show follows a group of geeks, including a NASA engineer, an astrophysicist and two particle physicists.

Every episode has at least one particle physics joke. On faster-than-light neutrinos: "Is this observation another Swiss export full of more holes than their cheese?" On Saul Perlmutter clutching the Nobel Prize: "What's the matter, Saul? You afraid somebody's going to steal it, like you stole Einstein's cosmological constant?"

To make these jokes timely and accurate, while sprinkling the sets with authentic scientific plots and posters, the show's writers depend on one physicist, David Saltzberg. Since the first episode, Saltzberg's dose of realism has made science chic again, and has even been credited with increasing admissions to physics programs. Symmetry writer Brad Hooker asked the LHC physicist, former Tevatron researcher and University of California, Los Angeles professor to explain how he walks the tightrope between science and sitcom.

Choosing the science

Brad: How many of your suggestions are put into the show?

David: In general, when they ask for something, they use it. But it's never anything that's funny or moves the story along. It's the part that you don't need to understand. They explained to me in the beginning that you can watch an I Love Lucy rerun and not understand Spanish, but understand that Ricky Ricardo is angry. That's all the level of science understanding needed for the show.

B: These references are current. Astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was mentioned on the show just weeks after winning the Nobel Prize for discovering the accelerating expansion of the universe.

D: Right. And you may wonder why they chose Saul Perlmutter, as opposed to the other two winners. It just comes down to that they liked the sound of his name better. Things like that matter. The writers think of the script in terms of music and the rhythm of the lines. I usually give them multiple choices because I don't know if they want something short or long or something with odd sounds in it. They really think about that kind of thing.

B: Do the writers ever ask you to explain the science and it goes completely over their heads?

D: We respond by email so I don't really know. But I don't think it goes over their heads because you can Wikipedia anything.

One thing was a little difficult for me: they asked for a spoof of the Born-Oppenheimer approximation, which is harder than it sounds. But for the most part it's just a matter of narrowing it down to a few choices. There are so many ways to go through it and I deliberately chose things that are current.

First of all, these guys live in our universe—they're talking about the things we physicists are talking about. And also, there isn't a whole lot of science journalism out there. It's been cut back a lot. In getting the words out there, whether it's "dark matter" or "topological insulators," hopefully some fraction of the audience will Google it.

B: Are you working with any other science advisors? I know one character is a neurobiologist.

D: Luckily the actress who portrays her, Mayim Bialik, is also a neuroscientist. She has a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. So that worked out really well because I don't know all of physics, let alone all of science. What I'm able to do with the physics is say, "Well, we don't really talk like that even though it's technically correct." And I can't do that for biology, but she can.

Science versus comedy

B: What have been some of the reactions from your colleagues to the show?

D: You know, very often to most tapings I bring a physics colleague. And they're always amazed at what a complex production it is. There are a couple hundred people running around when the show is being taped. They're impressed in the same way I was impressed. To have just two people standing together talking to each other on screen, it actually takes the efforts of 10 departments, lighting, sound, costumes, writing, acting…. Everything all has to go right, and it's happening at the same time. And it works in real time in front of a live audience. Imagine if we had to take our (science) data with a live audience watching us.

People will randomly meet up with me and say, "You know, I really appreciate that the science is correct." And the truth is I'm just living in terror of making a mistake because I know I'll get a hundred emails if anything is wrong.

But there are some liberties. The exact way they live their lives is not the exact way we live our lives because it's not a documentary. If you really wanted to show a physicist's work, you might show them sitting for eight hours in front of a computer, but that wouldn't be very good entertainment.

B: Do you watch the show very much?

D: In fact, sure. I'm at most tapings, so I see it getting made. But it's very different to watch the finished product. First of all, they tape in front of a live audience and they make changes based on whether the comedy works or not—whether people laugh. So I like to see which cut they went with. That's kind of an interesting thing. Comedy is an empirical science. You can have a lot of theories about whether something's funny or not, but in the end either the audience laughs or they don't. So you can test your theory very quickly—quicker than the theorists get to do.

B: Will you write a joke for my article?

D: I sort of gave up on jokes. I realized that they're professionals. It's a little bit like when an amateur comes along and tries to come up with new physics theories. It doesn't go well. Comedy is older than physics. There's a lot of knowledge about what works and what doesn't.

Spot the science

B: I noticed that in one episode the whiteboard in Sheldon's apartment showed a graph of data from a former Fermilab experiment you worked on, CDF. In real life, the graph generated a controversial debate over whether the statistical bump signaled a possible new particle.

D: I'll reveal this now. The camera angle never quite caught the whole board. And so people did recognize the two bumps but they didn't realize what Sheldon or Leonard had written above the two peaks. So the first bump is labeled "WZ" as it is and the second was labeled "mis-measurement." So we now know their opinion—which is not my opinion! So you can mail them letters, not me. And I think it's amazing how they never got that shot. You know, sometimes the actors stand in front of the board, and that's very annoying!

B: Any other subtle nods in the background?

D: There's some faster-than-light neutrino stuff on the board, but that actually rose to the level of the script. One of the producers who heard the news emailed me and said, "Wow, this is amazing!" And I wrote back, "Hold on. There are issues here." And so they wrote in a wonderful line: "Is this observation another Swiss export full of more holes than their cheese?"

One time the writers came and took a tour of UCLA and they saw our remote Keck Observatory observing room, where you can operate the telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii from L.A. That's really a nice thing to have—we were very proud. The graduate students spoke to them for about 10 minutes about all the things you could do.

What they took away from that was: "Well, this is just a conference room with a computer in it." So they thought that was really funny, and I have to admit it is kind of funny. So there actually was a scene that took place in a room with a computer where Raj is observing with a telescope, but he's really just in a room.

I think (science author and blogger) Jennifer Ouellette described the whole thing as looking at ourselves in a funhouse mirror. There have been times that I've been like, "I never realized that was funny." But it is.

“It certainly is outreach. It’s a different kind. You’re reaching people that may never turn on NOVA.”

Impact on science

B: Do you feel like there are harmful stereotypes within the show?

D: Each character is actually very different once you get to know the show. If you hear a one-line description of the show—there's four geeks and a pretty neighbor who moves in next door—that doesn't sound like anything anybody would want to watch. But, in fact, one of the co-creators, producers and head writers of the show, Bill Prady, said one of the things he knew from his life was that the so-called geeky culture is incredibly diverse. No two people are alike. He hadn't seen that represented in movies and television. For people that know the show, they'll know that these four people are very much individuals. This show is about these people, not all people.

B: Is this is a good outreach tool?

D: I have no way of measuring its impact. I just know that I've gotten emails and they're positive. I've gotten emails from school kids asking me questions about things in the show.

It certainly is outreach. It's a different kind. You're reaching people that may never turn on (the science documentary series) NOVA. You're reaching more of them as well. Brian Greene's books, NOVA physics documentaries, etcetera, those are more in-depth treatments. This is the opposite of in-depth. It may be nothing more than the word gets mentioned and that's it—you never hear from it again. Where I think this helps is the main characters. If people don't like them, they're not going to watch the show. So the main characters are likable. They have faults, but they're likable. And so they have these likable characters doing physics like we do. They love it like we love it and that may be the main part of the outreach of the show.

B: Have you seen more interest in physics from young people lately?

D: I did see someone at Comic-Con stand up and tell the writers they were inspired to go into science because of the show. I think of myself growing up, I would watch Cosmos with Carl Sagan. But I would also watch Space: 1999, which is certainly a different attitude towards science accuracy. (With these shows, science) just becomes part of the air as you're growing up. Hopefully it's just part of the atmosphere. Maybe for a lot of people when they're thinking about taking physics in high school, they realize that physics didn't end with James Clerk Maxwell. There are people doing it for a living.

I don't know about you, but I would love to hang out with these (characters on the show), and I'd be very happy to have them as friends.