David Saltzberg Interview

TheBigBangTheoryTV.com.ar got an exclusive interview with David Saltzberg, the science advisor to The Big Bang Theory, and they were kind enough to send over an English copy of the interview.

What is your work exactly in the show? Do you write part of the scripts or you just answer the writers' questions?

The writers send the scripts to me about a month in advance. Sometimes the science is already in there and I just fix it up a little if needed. Some of the writers themselves are big fans of science and know an impressive amount. However, even one little word choice can make the difference between something sounding correct to the physics audience and sounding fake and my job is to get that right. Other times, they send me a script with a "[science to come]" in place of some detail and I get to suggest things to fill it in. For example, in season two, they needed a science project that Leonard is working on to show his mother when she visited his lab. I suggested a real project that followed up on a potential discovery of dark matter made recently by an Italian group. If anyone looked it up, they would have learned some real news about physics. I send the set designers the material for the white boards and they put it up during the week before the taping. Sometimes the scribblings pertain to the topic of the show. For example, in the episode where the boys buy a time machine replica, the equations for time travel using wormholes, are on the whiteboards. One mathematician blogger criticized the way they were adding spins on the whiteboard as clumsy, but he also recognized that this is the way physicists would actually do it. The props master sometimes asks me questions, for example he asked what kind of vessel Leslie would use to freeze the banana in liquid nitrogen in season one. I told him about dewars and he found a great one from a used supply store in New Jersey. When you see actors reading books, they are often books written by friends of mine. Anyway, it is amazing what they can build for the show. The space station toilet he built was a masterpiece. I unfortunately know next to nothing about science fiction and many other aspects of the "smart" dialogue, such as logic and just about any aspect of science other than physics. These are all real-life interests of the writers and it comes from their lives.

Have you ever been on the set? If you have, what do you think of it?

I go every week to the taping. I have gone to the taping of nearly every episode, just in case there is a last minute science question, but there rarely is. I missed a few months when my research took me to Antarctica and I missed the folks there very much. It is filmed in front of a live studio audience of a few hundred people so is like attending live theater. It is a great way to spend a Tuesday evening. The writers let me stay with the writers off to the side in what they call a "video village" and they are watching the monitors. I try to figure out what is going on and what they are listening too but I am a bit lost. I suspect it would be similar to a writer visiting us while we are performing a physics experiment and trying to figure out what we are reacting to. I also bring a physics guest most weeks such as graduate students from my university, UCLA. The cast and crew have a chance to meet some other physicists than me that way. Backstage it is like a big family. People are genuine friends on the show. The cast and crew hang around and talk to people backstage after the show. Something that amazed me about the show is how they will build a whole set to use just once. Such as the control room at JPL in season two or the supermarket in season one. These go up in just a few days with enormous effort and are used for only a few minutes of screen time. Before being involved in the show, I had no idea they did that. Some of the cast and crew have also visited our labs here at UCLA. They learned about a few modern experiments and also met real-life physicists who are passionate about their work. I think the cast had not met so many physicists before, so I think it was helpful to them.

What is your favourite science joke of the show?

In general I like when they do "freshman physics" stunts. For example, early on there is a scene where Leonard and Sheldon bring a heavy box up to Penny's apartment using the stairs as an inclined plane. The Leonard/Penny date where he spins an olive in the glass is a concise description of the difference of centrifugal and centripetal force. Everyone loves Sheldon's Doppler Effect costume. One high school teacher told me he used the scene in his curriculum where he normally puts wrong Hollywood science for his students to critique. However they couldn't find anything wrong with Sheldon's description of what motion does to a sound wave.

What do you think of Sheldon? And what does the science community think about his lines? Are they believable or are they considered extravagant?

I don't know how Jim Parsons (Sheldon) does it. His lines are not only pronounced correctly, but really sound like a physicist saying them. Not just the pronunciation matters, but the whole rhythm of the language and emphasis on words must be correct. Jim says he does not understand the science, but I don't believe him. I think he works incredibly hard each week and comes understanding what he is saying. The lines themselves all match the story point the writers are making. Sometimes it is very obscure, but if people look them up, they will see it is all related to real scientific ideas that are concerning his character. People who have not seen the show, just the advertisements, often have a negative opinion of Sheldon. However, most physicists who have actually seen the show recognize the Sheldon's in their lab or from graduate school. Sometimes they tell me about someone even more extreme. Nobody every says THEY are a Sheldon though. I have caught myself saying things that Sheldon has said and then feeling a bit sheepish.

What do your scientist friends think about this job? Do they think you are doing fine or do they think you banalize science?

The response I have received is overwhelmingly positive. And strongly so. We had a positive full page review in Science Magazine. I am very happy that the public relations people of the American Physical Society wrote to me that they loved the show and they even sent the cast physics toys. We have a mention of "Physics Today" in an upcoming show I hope they will enjoy. This has been a wonderful forum of two types of physics. First, the high-school physics stunts all make a real point about physics that will remind the audience of what they learned in school, or give them a taste for physics to come. I even had one junior high school student from Illinois contact me with a question about how to calculate something they said on the show. Second, he work that the boys are doing has been a place to mention real physics work going on in modern laboratories. In this era of declining media coverage for science, here is a venue with over 15 million viewers to get the word out about modern scientific work. Maybe this show will do for physics what Indiana Jones did for enrollment in archaeology departments.

Have you ever met anyone with any of the character's personality? And did you you ever (or do you now) feel related to any of the guys? If so, to which one?

While I have not met anyone quite so extreme, I am amazed by how often others tell me they have met Sheldon's in their labs. Quite a few women have told me about how they had to dodge the Howard Wolowitzes in their departments. I haven't met anyone with Raj's particular problem, but I sympathize. Leonard seems perfectly normal to me.

Have you worked in any other show as a science consultant?

I did get a few questions from the people making the film, Angels and Demons. I gave them a few lines for the workers in the accelerator when they were turning on the LHC. However, it was nowhere like the involvement I have had in this show. For example, I never even saw the script for the movie.

Can you tell us something about your participation in the Season 2 DVD?

There is going to be a DVD extra about "The Science of the Big Bang Theory". I have not seen it, but they are going to be talking about me and even put me on camera. I don't think I will ever have the courage to watch it.

Why do you think a science/geek show is so succesful? Is it the new trend?

I am no expert. What I have noticed is that people don't just say the kinda think the show is good, rather they say how much they love it. Maybe people tune in for the characters and stories. At times it is a story of young love, at times a buddy comedy like Laurel and Hardy, and at times an ensemble. Personally I love the sharp writing, and the cast. Now that I see what goes into it, I really appreciate the production values such as the bright colors of the sets and the things in them, the editing and just watching what they do with the cameras. It has completely changed the way I watch television and even live theater.

Can you tell us a little secret (an unknown fact) about the show?

Nearly all the posters in the physics department are real. Some are posters made by our UCLA graduate students about their Ph.D. work. Others are advertisements for physics conferences I found on the walls in my own department. The legal department has to clear every single one of them.

Interview courtesy of TheBigBangTheoryTV.com.ar.