Now in its seventh season, the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory is more popular than ever, averaging 19.79 million viewers per episode; and it’s not going away anytime soon. The comedy—recently extended to 2017—revolves around a gang of physicists and an engineer who work at the California Institute of Technology. Some recurring themes include their dorky obsession with sci-fi and comic books, their roller coaster–like love lives, and their surprisingly accurate scientific research in the lab.
Science caught up with David Saltzberg, who’s been the show’s one and only science consultant since it premiered, at this past weekend’s USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. Saltzberg is an astrophysicist at the University of California, Los Angeles. When he’s not sifting through scripts or on the set, you can find him in the classroom or searching for neutrinos in Antarctica.
Q: Science last spoke with you in 2008. What’s changed about the show’s portrayal of science since you started? Has it changed at all now that you’re more experienced in consulting?
D.S.: I’ve certainly gotten more efficient. The writers and I used to have to go back and forth a lot more for me to converge on what they wanted. But now we just finished 7 years together, and so we’re a little bit like an old married couple. We know each other’s thinking a little better.
The whiteboards the characters use for equations have actually changed into something where real scientists pitch me their latest results and ask if they can appear on them. It’s sort of become a thing to get on the whiteboards. Dozens of scientists are watching those boards. The big discovery of gravitational waves, which indicated cosmological inflation, got a special place. It appeared on Stephen Hawking’s board, which of course is a much higher level than our main characters’ boards. That was actually vetted by Hawking himself. The producers didn’t want to put something on his board that he wouldn’t be comfortable with, so they took what I had suggested and sent a picture to him. He said he liked it.
Q: Speaking of gravitational waves, why do you think it’s important to throw in recent events like that?
D.S.: That subject was promoted not just to a whiteboard, but to the actual dialogue, which is appropriate since it’s such a great discovery. It’s really the creative call of the writers. It’s their show and they know what makes sense. But these physicists live in our universe, so this would be something they would talk about. So I think it adds to the reality. I’m not a writer, but when I listen to writers, they talk a lot about creating a world that’s believable, and people getting drawn into the story. And I think the more real things are, the more you can do that.
That said, I would never say you have to be accurate in science on television. I think you could make a great story with completely gonzo science. But it’s a creative decision and as long as the creators, in this case, thought that accurate science made sense, I’m here to help them with that.
Q: A recent review said the show portrays scientists as these misfits or nerds, and that kids are deterred from science because of this. What’s your response?
D.S.: I don’t know exactly what a nerd, or misfit, is, but let’s accept those words for a moment. I read a piece like that in The New York Times and thought it was shockingly offensive to people. I was actually surprised they would print it. What’s wrong with being a misfit? It was a woman writing an op-ed piece who complained about nerds turning people off from science. What’s wrong with being nerdy, for lack of a better word? It’s quite judgmental.
Q: What was it that made you decide that you wanted to get into advising TV shows?
D.S.: Oh, they asked. I feel like living in LA and being a professor, part of our job is to help local industry. You might normally think that a physicist is helping out industries like Lockheed Martin or Raytheon, but the entertainment industry is another industry that employs a lot of people. And it helps our city, so I’m happy to help when I can. Then it turned out to something bigger where they wanted me around all the time. I could see they were doing a great show and so I was happy to join in.
Q: Are there any particular tips you would give to scientists who want to break into this field?
D.S.: It’s funny because I never deliberately sought this out. If they’re interested, the best thing to do is contact the Science & Entertainment Exchange. It’s an arm of the National Academy of Sciences and they have an office in Los Angeles. They have a giant Rolodex of industry people and a giant Rolodex of scientists. They consider themselves 1-800-Dial-a-Scientist.
So send them an e-mail; they’re very friendly. Tell them what your expertise is. They will probably call and talk to you about your expertise a little bit and then keep you on file. If you’re an expert in some particular type of feldspar and somebody wants to make a movie about that, they will make the connection. They also have events at least once a month in LA where industry people mingle with scientists. I’ve met a number of people and vice versa. It’s done a terrific job melding cultures.
Q: How much time does advising take out of your schedule?
D.S.: For an episode, it just takes a few hours to look at scripts and put things on the whiteboards. But I also go to just about every taping, which is a few more hours. Luckily, most of this is in the evening. They finish up with scripts and are ready for comments in the evening. Tapings are in the evening. So my evening relaxation is looking at scripts.
Right now I’m teaching a large undergraduate class 4 days a week. I’m here in D.C. this weekend, but tonight in my hotel room I’ll maybe be creating a midterm. As for research, we’re planning a big balloon launch in December of this year in Antarctica, so we’re getting ready for that. It’ll be looking for neutrinos hitting the Antarctic ice sheet. We’ve launched it before, but we have a new and improved scientific payload and we’re hoping this time we’ll see the neutrinos [to learn about the origin of cosmic rays].
I usually spend about 2 to 3 months at a time in Antarctica. It happened once where I had to look at scripts by e-mail. The executive producer, Chuck Lorre, once said he thinks they’re the only sitcom that sends their scripts to Antarctica for vetting. I think he’s right.
Q: Do you plan to see The Big Bang Theory through to the end?
D.S.: Yup. Maybe like the universe, there will be no end though.