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The Man Who Gets The Science Right On 'The Big Bang Theory'

Sep 23, 2013
Originally published on September 23, 2013 12:02 pm

Sure, Bob Newhart may have won his first Emmy for guest-starring as Professor Proton on the hugely popular show The Big Bang Theory, about four young scientists at Caltech. But behind the scenes is a real-life professor, David Saltzberg of UCLA.

Saltzberg studies high-energy particle physics and high-energy neutrino astronomy, using radio-detection techniques when he's not working as The Big Bang Theory's science consultant.

"It's just like a physics lab!" Saltzberg exclaims as he maneuvers around the show's sprawling set. "You have to watch where you walk. There are cables and everything everywhere."

Every week, Saltzberg attends the show's live taping at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif. He makes sure the whiteboards are correct. For every new episode, they're covered by a fresh scrawl of formulas dreamed up by Saltzberg and admired by physicists for their scrupulous accuracy — and occasional shoutouts to what's happening in the world of science.

"The whiteboards have dozens of fans," Saltzberg jokes.

Saltzberg also reviews scripts in progress. They arrive with unfinished dialogue and brackets reading, "Insert Science Here." He fills in the blanks, as in an episode where Dr. Sheldon Cooper, a puffed-up theoretical physicist, keeps bumming rides from a neighbor.

"She couldn't understand why Sheldon never got a driver's license," Saltzberg explains. When she asks what Sheldon was doing at age 16, when everyone else was learning to drive, he answers, as per Saltzberg, "Examining perturbative amplitudes in N=4 supersymmetric theories, leading to a reexamination of the ultraviolet properties of multiloop N=8 supergravity, using modern twistor theory."

As it happens, that's "a real, important project that one of my friends is working on," Saltzberg says.

The scientist got involved with The Big Bang Theory in 2007, when the show was little more than a theoretical construct. The set designers asked him to show them some real graduate students' apartments, so they could see how young scientists really live.

"And they did a nice, faithful re-creation of their apartments," he said, adding that after CBS tested the show, the sets were scrapped, because, Saltzberg thinks, the sets were too depressing.

Saltzberg gets backup from actress Mayim Bialik, who happens to have a PhD in neuroscience. (Her character, Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler, is also a neuroscientist.) She helps Saltzberg fine-tune the show's scientific details.

"Like, what kind of microscope would they be using, or how thin should these slices be," she offers as an example.

For his part, Saltzberg has gotten in front of the camera exactly once. He was an extra in a scene in a university cafeteria, when the nebbishy Howard Wolowitz shares a thrilling milestone: He finally has a girlfriend. Saltzberg describes his acting technique thusly: "I just looked at him like, what's your problem? Why are you bothering me? I'm a physicist. I have other things to think about."

Executive producer Bill Prady says it's useful to have Saltzberg around for last-minute questions — like the time the show needed him to calculate how fast a bottle would fall if it were dropped from a four-story window. He can also check the accuracy of jokes made up on the fly.

"We shoot in front of a live audience," Prady says. "And if a joke dies, the writers gather and we pitch new jokes, and when we get one, we go teach it to the actors and we do the scene again."

That happened in the very first season, when Sheldon and another scientist have a fight. Saltzberg pitched a joke: When one of the characters describes the fight as "a little misunderstanding," Sheldon is furious. "A little misunderstanding?" he cries. "Galileo and the pope had a little misunderstanding!"

It's the only joke Saltzberg has ever gotten on the show.

"The writers were very kind," he says. "But it's a little bit like if I'm at a party and having drinks and someone says, well, they have a new theory of gravity they want to tell me about."

Ultimately, Saltzberg says, creating comedy is not that different from experimental science. At the end of the day, it either works or it doesn't. But he adds that he thinks this sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, is more important than his work in the lab.

"This has a lot more impact than anything I will ever do," he says. "It's hard to fathom, when you think about 20 million viewers on the first showing — and that doesn't include other countries and reruns. I'm happy if a paper I write gets read by a dozen people."

Saltzberg says he became a scientist partly because of popular culture, such as Isaac Asimov's science fiction and the '70s TV show Space: 1999. He believes the rigor and passion for science he brings to The Big Bang Theory might inspire kids in the audience to one day become scientists, too.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And for our next story, we're going to take a closer look at "Big Bang Theory." It is one of the most popular shows on TV. Last night it had eight Emmy nominations. In addition to Parsons' wins, actor Bob Newhart won also for outstanding guest actor in a comedy series. Newhart plays a professor, the childhood hero of the young Cal-Tech scientists who make up the show's main cast.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BIG BANG THEORY")

JIM PARSONS: (As Sheldon Cooper) Professor Proton, it's an honor to meet you.

BOB NEWHART: (As Professor Proton) Just call me Arthur.

GREENE: Well, here's this. Behind the scenes is a real professor. Dr. David Saltzberg is "The Big Bang Theory's" science consultant. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, the UCLA professor works with writers and producers when he's not applying his skills to high energy particle physics.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Dr. David Saltzberg is part of "The Big Bang Theory's" own origins story, says it's co-creator and executive producer, Bill Prady.

BILL PRADY: Well, once we said these characters are going to be scientists, we said, well, let's make sure that the science is right.

ULABY: So in 2007, they recruited Saltzberg, who says "The Big Bang Theory"'s sprawling set has become like another home.

DAVID SALTZBERG: So you can see, it's just like a physics lab. You have to watch where you walk. There are cables and everything everywhere.

ULABY: Saltzberg's maneuvering around before a live taping. He's checking the show's whiteboards, covered in a scrawl of formulas. Physicists often recognize them as in-jokes. Saltzberg updates them weekly and he's scrupulous about making sure the science is real. Now he's consulting with a writer backstage about an upcoming script.

SALTZBERG: Do you want a better problem? Do you want a better...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's okay right now.

ULABY: The writer sends Saltzberg scripts with holes in the dialogue, saying, "Insert Science Here." He did that in an episode where the main character, Sheldon, a puffed-up theoretical physicist, keeps bumming rides from a neighbor.

SALTZBERG: She couldn't understand why Sheldon never got a driver's license, so she said...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BIG BANG THEORY")

KALEY CUOCO: (As Penny) You know, I gotta ask, why didn't you just get a license at 16 like everybody else?

PARSONS: (As Sheldon) I was otherwise engaged.

CUOCO: (As Penny) Doing what?

SALTZBERG: So Sheldon answered...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE BIG BANG THEORY")

PARSONS: (As Sheldon) Examining perturbative amplitudes in n=4 supersymmetric theories, leading to a reexamination of the ultraviolet properties of multi-loop n=8 supergravity, using modern twistor theory.

ULABY: That's not just a laugh line. It's...

SALTZBERG: A real and important project that one of my friends is working on.

ULABY: Right when David Saltzberg first got involved with "The Big Bang Theory," he was asked to take its set designers around to some real graduate students' apartments so they could see how young scientists really live.

SALTZBERG: And they did a nice, faithful recreation of their apartments. And I think they decided the sets were too depressing.

ULABY: So the designers took out the drab milk crates and added cheerful colors, as well as some of Saltzberg's actual old textbooks as props. He gets backup from actress Mayim Bialik. Not only does she play a neuroscientist on the show, she earned a real PhD in the field.

MAYIM BIALIK: We've often done stuff together. Like we've had discussions about, you know, like, what kind of microscope would they be using, or how thin should these slices be.

ULABY: For his part, Saltzberg has gotten in front of the camera exactly once. He was an extra in a university cafeteria scene when the one of the more obnoxious characters storms in to share a thrilling non-academic achievement.

SALTZBERG: When Howard Wolowitz announces he has a girlfriend, I received that news.

SIMON HELBERG: (As Howard) Hey, fellas, this is my girlfriend, Bernadette. My girlfriend, Bernadette.

SALTZBERG: I just looked at him like, what's your problem? Why are you bothering me? I'm a physicist. I've got other things to think about.

ULABY: On set, executive producer Bill Prady says it's useful to have Saltzberg around for last-minute questions, like the time they needed him to calculate how fast a bottle would fall if it was dropped from a four story window, or check the accuracy of jokes made up on the fly.

PRADY: We shoot in front of a live audience and if a joke dies, the writers gather and we pitch on new jokes, and when we get one we go teach it to the actors and we do the scene again.

ULABY: That happened in an episode when the two main scientists have a fight. Saltzberg pitched a joke that starts when another characters describes it as a little misunderstanding.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BIG BANG THEORY")

PARSONS: (As Sheldon) A little misunderstanding? Galileo and the pope had a little misunderstanding.

PRADY: And it's the only joke David has gotten in the show.

SALTZBERG: The writers were very kind, but it's a little bit like if I'm at a party and having drinks and someone says, well, they have a new theory of gravity they want to tell me about.

ULABY: Creating comedy, Saltzberg says, is ultimately not that different from experimental science. At the end of the day, it works or it doesn't. But he says he thinks the sitcom, "The Big Bang Theory," is more meaningful than his work in the lab.

SALTZBERG: This has a lot more impact than anything I will ever do.

ULABY: Do you really think that? Why?

SALTZBERG: It's hard to fathom, what, you know, when you think about 20 million viewers on the first showing, and that doesn't include other countries and reruns. I'm happy if a paper I write gets read by a dozen people.

ULABY: Saltzberg says he became a scientist partly because of popular culture, like Isaac Asimov's science fiction and the TV show "Space: 1999." He says maybe the rigor and passion for science he brings to "The Big Bang Theory" might inspire kids in the audience to one day become scientists too. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.