Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the June 5 issue of AwardsLine.
Undergrads from UCLA’s Honors Physics 1B (who take this class because ordinary physics just isn’t difficult enough) were in for a surprise when they took a field trip to Warner Bros. Studios to be part of the live studio audience for CBS’ The Big Bang Theory.
The set always features whiteboards marked up with dizzyingly complex equations. And it took a while for any student to notice that today’s equations were the solutions for the midterm exam they’d taken earlier that day.
As Big Bang physicist Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) might say: Bazinga!
This visual gag was a lot like the continual pranks of Sheldon and his geeky pals on the show. But the man behind this in-joke was their professor, particle astrophysicist David Saltzberg, who also serves as science adviser on Big Bang. He’s the guy who happily fills in the blanks in the scripts marked: [SCIENCE TO COME].
He also comes up with the whiteboard material. When not pranking a group of students, Saltzberg’s whiteboards are usually related to the script. Most recently, per a discussion between Sheldon and Leonard (Johnny Galecki), the whiteboard dealt with unruh radiation.
Uh, you might want to Google that. In fact, Saltzberg is hoping you will. Drop a scientific term into a top-rated sitcom and a significant sample of the audience will grab their mobile devices to learn more about the Higgs Boson, Quantum Brain Dynamic Theory or the Large Hadron Collider. “We might just mention ‘dark matter’—there isn’t a Nova-style lecture, but the word gets out there,” he says.
Saltzberg hopes Big Bang can help a general audience fall in love with science. And, he adds: “People are really wearing the geek moniker now as a badge of honor. I was wearing a T-shirt yesterday at the gym that said ‘Geek Inside.’ And some guy came by who was very fit and said, ‘I want that T-shirt. That’s me.’”
Saltzberg says virtually every science professor in range of Hollywood gets tapped to check a script or two. Usually, this involves a few pages and a phone call. In contrast, Saltzberg reads every script and attends every taping—unless he’s, say, in Antarctica using scientific balloons to study neutrinos as they hit the ice sheet (he still manages to send whiteboard material to Burbank from the South Pole).
Saltzberg notes that much of the science comes from the writers, many of whom fit the geek mode themselves. Show cocreator Bill Prady, for example, is a computer programmer. “They think science is important, and it shows,” Saltzberg says.
Executive producer Steven Molaro says Saltzberg’s advice does more than prevent scientists from sending hate email. Choosing just the right bit of science can elevate the story. Molaro fondly recalls a scene in which Leonard’s nonscientist girlfriend, Penny (Kaley Cuoco), wants to work on their relationship by coming to the lab to observe Leonard at work. Saltzberg suggested that Leonard make science visual with a dancing hologram. “It was a moody and beautiful scene,” Molaro says. “It wasn’t just science, it was the poetry of science. I remember how Kaley started to tear up when she said, ‘Sometimes I forget how smart you are.’”
To each taping, Saltzberg brings a guest fondly known as “the Geek of the Week.” His plus-ones range from undergrads to Nobel Prize winners. “Most recently, we had the science consultant from Breaking Bad, Dr. Donna Nelson from the University of Oklahoma. I was really loving the way they were getting the science right in Breaking Bad, so I invited her out,” Saltzberg says.
Saltzberg’s favorite shows include Breaking Bad, MythBusters and Jersey Shore. Well, maybe “favorite” is too strong for Jersey, but as a Jersey boy himself, Saltzberg jokes that if the producers ever need a science adviser, he’s available. (Seriously, though, he says he plans to retire from advising after the high of being part of Big Bang.)
He’s also come to respect comedy writing, which is a lot like the physics lab. “Comedy is an experimental or empirical enterprise, just like science,” he says. “People laugh or they don’t. You have theories on why things should work in a certain way, but you ultimately can’t disagree with the measurements.”
Cast member Mayim Bialik, who plays Sheldon’s gal pal Amy Farrah Fowler and holds a neuroscience Ph.D. from UCLA, says, “It’s very difficult for someone to exist and coexist as well as he does with a bunch of industry people. We’ve had some really total nerdball conversations about the nature of existence, physics versus neuroscience, just like Sheldon and Amy.”
When asked if he places physics at the top of the intellectual heap among the sciences like Sheldon does, Saltzberg deadpans, “He only speaks the truth. When I teach introductory physics, that’s what I teach them. It’s my class. I get to say what I want.”