Battlestar Galactica is over. Numb3rs tanked. But there's still The Big Bang Theory on CBS, a sitcom featuring the daily dust-ups of four young physicists and their blonde waitress friend, if you must have science mixed into your small-screen fare.
"It's not Hollywood, it's Burbank," physicist David Saltzberg explained to a crowd of 150 or so people Friday night at the "Communicating Science to the Public through the Performing Arts" conference at the City University of New York's Graduate Center. He described what it's like to be the on-set science consultant for Big Bang Theory, which is taped in a studio in Burbank.
Saltzberg takes a break for a few hours weekly from his job at U.C.L.A. to make sure that the show's 12 writers get their portrayal of science and scientists right in BBT episodes. He blogs about the experience at The Big Blog Theory. His curriculum vitae includes a two-year stint at Fermilab Tevatron. Currently, he is involved in high-energy particle physics and high-energy neutrino astronomy using radio telescopes. His work on the ANITA project has included three successful scientific balloon flights in Antarctica and he is working with the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.
BBT writers actually know a lot of physics, (and BBT executive producer Bill Prady is a former software engineer so he speaks geek) but sometimes they need Saltzberg to correct their cosines to sines, and their miles per hour to feet per second.
There are parallels between Saltzberg's day job and his side job, he says, adding that "comedy is an experimental science." The show is taped in front of a live studio audience. If the audience doesn't respond to a laugh line, the writers immediately rework the script to make it work.
Saltzberg contributes the equations and diagrams that viewers see on whiteboards that Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Raj puzzle over, including a board that featured top quark equations that the real physicist had worked on as a post-doc. An image of that board went viral, he says.
Saltzberg loans equipment and brings a "geek of the week"—one of his students—to the set each week, and makes sure that the writers and actors get to see the real academic world too, including the apartments of physics graduate students and post-docs. The initial portrayal of these dwellings was "too gloomy and depressing" for TV, Saltzberg says, and the set designers decided to brighten things up after the first pilot.
Various sci-tech luminaries have made cameos on the show including Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak and Nobel laureate George Smoot.
Dialogue, character development, story creation and jokes are left to the real writers. On a few occasions early on, Saltzberg offered what he thought were funny ideas for the show to the writers. Here is the reaction he would get: "Sometimes I'm at a party and someone wants to tell me their new theory of gravitation, and you're like, 'I wish this person would stop talking to me.' That's the sort of look they gave me."
But a few hints were dropped Friday night about future BBT plot points: think extrasolar planets, the metric system and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
BBT is the number-two comedy on TV now, and reaches 15 million viewers each week, so Saltzberg sees it as an excellent way to entice viewers to learn more and become fans of science, students of science or even scientists.
And if the show gets science details a little wrong now and then, that's not a tragedy; in fact it entices viewers to learn more, Saltzberg says. Viewers should contact the writers on Twitter, or complain on iMDB.com or televisionwithoutpity.com. "I don't think we have to be the science police in these things," he said.