A lot of people like The Big Bang Theory - that's a matter of scientific record. But did you know you'd probably like it a lot more if you had a Ph.D. in physics?
Although it may seem like a frothy studio-based sitcom on the surface, there is a lot more going on the behind the scenes - and it's all down to one man: David Saltzberg.
Who is David Saltzberg?
David Saltzberg is the go to man for science fact-checking in Hollywood. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago, while he conducted his post-doctorate at CERN in Switzerland. What's more, he's currently a professor of physics at UCLA.
Basically, he knows a lot about science.
This makes him ideal to make sure all of the science-y dialogue and props are in order in The Big Bang Theory. Because, you know if there's a mistake, he's going to be flooded with emails from irate, eagle-eyed science enthusiasts.
What Does He Do?
In an interview with Wired, he laid out some of the process.
Basically as soon as the writers release any fragment of a script to the rest of the crew I get a copy. Sometimes I’ll get six pages of a new script. These writers know a lot of science. Sometimes they’ll have a whole piece of science dialog that they’ve come up with and I just have to check it. For example, the script I’m reading right now I changed one letter. They had mentioned an ‘anti-photon’ but that doesn’t make any sense because there is no such thing. So I suggested changing it to ‘anti-proton.’ The writers, I understand, want the sound and the rhythm to be the same, so if I change something like that I like it to be still correct but not change the pattern. Sometimes they’ll just say ‘science to come’ in brackets in the script — like they want characters to be working on an experiment and they need some words.
The whiteboards found in the background of a lot of the sets are also an object of great interest for Saltzberg. The equations scrawled upon them aren't just swiggles to make the guys look smart, they are really complex mathematical equations. Indeed, some of them are created from scratch. Saltzberg explains:
The writers wanted for some time for the whiteboards to be a problem that the guys were working on. And I hadn’t really done that because it’s hard to think about a problem that would work that wasn’t already solved. Or if it’s so hard, how am I going to solve it? But over the summer I got interested in a particle called the axion and a new way to find it. So I was working on that problem week by week and I had my notes and at one point it was looking really promising and then later it really got mashed.
Sometimes the writers leave it to Saltzberg to think up some science, although other times they try their hands at it too. But often, it doesn't always work out. He explained:
The most amusing [mistake] was when Sheldon and Leonard’s mother were working on a scientific problem called quantum brain dynamics theory…. This theory is about how quantum mechanics is important for consciousness in the brain. It’s a highly disputed theory. But I realized there was nothing we could do because it was so built into the script. I mentioned, ‘There’s probably nothing you can do but this is not a well-accepted theory.’ They fixed it by saying that they were working on disproving quantum brain dynamics theory. They were able to solve it with one word.
But no one's perfect, and even Saltzberg has been known to make the odd mistake - and of course, someone spotted it. When asked if he had ever missed a goof, he stated:
They mentioned work by a scientist named Dolbear. He’s the physicist who figured out the rate of crickets chirping to temperature. We got his first name wrong. They said Emile Dolbear instead of A.E. Dolbear. I noticed it later. I got an e-mail from the great-grandson of A.E. Dolbear mentioning that we got the name wrong. He’s a chemist in Arizona and I invited him to a taping, and I think he felt better after that.
Unfortunately, although the producers and writers appreciate his scientific output, it seems Saltzberg's isn't needed in the joke department. Unfortunately, when he has tried to pitch jokes in the past, they're rarely used:
I tried and I had no luck. Comedy is a science and a field unto itself. I quickly understood that I was just not qualified and they were very patient with me, and very kind. But I eventually realized I was that guy at a cocktail party who was trying to tell me his new theory of gravity.
Currently, The Big Bang Theory is expected to return from its hiatus on January 29th. But just in case you can't wait that long...
Have you ever noticed the science in The Big Bang Theory?