The Science of the Big Bang Theory
How writers of the popular sitcom get their physics right
On a recent episode of the television comedy, “The Big Bang Theory”, the show’s geeky hero, physicist Sheldon Cooper, was puzzling over a complex paradox: why do electrons act like they don’t have mass when they travel through a material called “graphene”? If you watched the episode last February, all you probably remember is laughing at Sheldon’s antics. But eight months later, when the Nobel Prize in Physics went to two British scientists for graphene research, more than a few fans of the popular show may have perked up their ears in recognition.
It was a silent triumph for David Saltzberg, a particle physicist at the University of California at Los Angeles who moonlights as the show’s science consultant. “Sometimes, it’s just a line, but people can actually learn something,” he said. Speaking at an October 29 “Science and the Arts” conference at the City University of New York, Saltzberg self-effacingly described his responsibilities as a TV consultant. “What I don’t do is character development, writing dialogues or storylines and I definitely don’t make jokes,” he said. He laughingly compared the writers of the show to principal investigators in a lab. “They have all the creative control and they run the show,” he said.
What Saltzberg does is provide relevant science when the writers specifically request it. This may be simple “freshman” physics factoids or filling up the whiteboards on the set with real equations. “There’s a small community of viewers that reads those boards each week and there’s little treats in there for them,” he said.
Saltzberg also likes weaving cutting-edge physics into the show, to introduce viewers to the latest in science. Abi Polin, a sophomore at New York University who is a big fan of the show said, “I like the fact that the physics is real and relevant. One of the characters works on a “dark matter” project, which is very current in physics.”
To meet a growing demand for science consultants in the entertainment business, biochemist Lizzie Burns and mathematician Jonathan Farley co-founded Hollywood Math and Science Consulting in 2002. “Audiences are much more sophisticated, so if you say something clearly ridiculous, it could hurt you,” Farley warned. He had seen a couple of episodes of the Big Bang Theory and commented that he found the accuracy of the physics jokes extremely amusing. “I always assumed that one of their writers must be a physicist,” he said. Farley only recently found out that they had hired an expert, like him, to help them out.
Do these science consultants work full-time? “Nobody on the planet makes a living from being a consultant,” said Farley. So why do it? Saltzberg joked, “My hidden agenda is education.” He emphasized that he does the consulting for public outreach and a bit of fun. “Even if I gave a physics talk to a hundred people, I would have to do 100,000 talks per week to reach the number of people this show reaches,” he said. Theoretical physicist Yannis Tziligakis, a member of the audience at the event, asked Saltzberg a probing question. He wanted to know whether any proceeds from the show went toward scientific research. Saltzberg’s response: Not yet but, “Let’s wait for the future and see.”
The Big Bang Theory in many ways is a celebration of scientists, both fictional and real. Referring to the eminent scientists that have appeared as guests on show, such as Nobel Prize winner George Smoot and the co-inventor of Apple, Steve Wozniak, Saltzberg says proudly, “Other shows may get Britney Spears, but we like our star cast better.”