For many years, UCLA Professor David Saltzberg has been a leading thinker in particle physics. Since 2006, he's also had a job title he may never have set out to put on his CV, but has proven hugely rewarding: science consult for the beloved CBS comedy The Big Bang Theory. Whether it's adventuring in Antarctica, or advising by the camera, he always seems to be doing something story worthy. We recently caught up with him to ask a few questions about science in entertainment, what it means to have a passion for the most cutting edge physics in the world, and what roles the two may have to play together…
Tell us about your background. What sparked your interest in physics and astronomy?
It’s hard to say when my interest in physics and astronomy started because I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t have an interest in these things. My dad is a retired electrical engineer and we built little electronic projects down in the basement. We made accessories for an Apple II Plus computer and model rocketry.
I grew up in New Jersey and went to Princeton University. I majored in physics and loved it. I worked on a senior thesis experiment and worked in the Princeton Cyclotron, a low energy accelerator. I progressed to much higher energy as a graduate student. I earned a Ph.D. working at Fermilab while attending the University of Chicago. This was back when the Fermilab Tevatron was the highest energy atom smasher in the world. It reigned for decades and only recently was superseded by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. I am part of UCLA’s large group that works on one of the two large experiments at CERN, called the “Compact Muon Solenoid” (CMS), where we use muons and other subatomic particles to study the debris from the high energy collisions of the LHC. Right now, I am working with students and postdocs to build muon detectors and increase our discovery reach. As we say, “muon” is CMS’s middle name.
What moment in your career stands out as a turning point?
My research using stratospheric balloons in Antarctica, The ANITA project, was based on some theory that had never been proven. We set up an accelerator experiment back in 2000 and within the first 15 to 30 minutes of running the experiment we immediately knew. We had seen the signal we were looking for. Having seen that signal basically influenced 12-15 years of my career. I never realized what an adventure physics could really be – between Antarctica and going to Switzerland for the Large Hadron Collider.
Were there any television shows or films you watched as a kid that inspired an interest in science?
Science was in the air at my house so I watched Nova and the Cosmos series. I also liked to watch science fiction: Space 1999 and the original Battlestar Galactica.
How did you become the science adviser for The Big Bang Theory? Can you give us an idea of how you help the show’s science?
Back in 2006 when the creators were producing the first pilot episode, they were looking for a local scientist to review their script and advise in terms of production design. I was referred through a friend of a friend of a friend. The set designers visited some of our graduate students’ apartments. The writers would come visit UCLA and the graduate and post-doctorate students toured them around. Eventually, the actors came and saw what was going on here.
On a weekly basis they give me scripts and I inspect them to make sure that they are correct and they usually are. Other times, just a little tweak makes it right. On occasion, they will leave something for me to fill in – they’ll put a “SCIENCE TO COME” statement. For example, the characters will be working on a specific experiment, so I’ll fill that in or I’ll give them choices because the writers definitely have an idea of how long or short the phrase should be and the rhythm. They know how to break things to add humor. I can’t figure out any of the humor. Comedy is an older discipline than science.
One of the Co-creators/Executive Producers, Bill Prady, was a computer scientist before he was a professional writer. These writers know a lot of science and we are able to have discussions at a pretty high level. Another writer, Eric Kaplan, is very interested in science and we have been talking the last few weeks about the “Black Hole Information Paradox.” He asked very good questions and I have to go back sometimes and look it up and find the answer. They definitely keep me on my toes because I have my particular field of research. In principle, I should be staying broad and looking at what is going on in all areas of physics. Day by day we have our deadlines and things that are due. The show forces me to keep up to date on more topics, which are useful fodder for the show.
How did you become involved with The Science & Entertainment Exchange? What do you think of the program?
In 2008, I was introduced to The Exchange either through Jennifer Ouellette, the former director, or possibly through her husband Sean Carroll from the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. The Exchange has been wonderful. I have gone to their events and interacted with all sorts of industry people, such as a science salon hosted by Jerry and Janet Zucker. I have made some professional contacts that have been helpful. For example, I didn’t know any neuroscientists and I met a neuroscientist that also consults for The Exchange, Dr. Ricardo Gil da Costa, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for biological studies. So it’s great that I can sometimes ask him neuroscience questions.
Interestingly enough, I met Stephen Hawking for the first time while filming The Big Bang Theory. There is a great scene this season that only Stephen Hawking could pull off. Who would have thought the Hollywood aspect of my career would have introduced me to him as opposed to the pure scientific aspect?
The Big Blog Theory. What are some of your favorite uses of science within the show?
It comes in different ways. In the first season, the writers used some very simple physics for physical comedy. There is a humorous scene in episode 2 where the main characters, Sheldon and Leonard, are pushing a box up the stairs and they are talking about the physics of an incline plane. Basically, it is what you hear about in the first week of physics class. I like it when a lot of the scientific dialog is material from the first year of physics, because I know that a lot more people are going to understand it. It is also a useful, creative tool for junior and high school teachers to show clips to illustrate their points and help connect to students.
Plus, it is a great way of introducing people to some modern-day physics. You can be forgiven for taking a first-year physics class and thinking that nothing happened after the 1880s in physics. Even though it is a very live field. There was a fantastic scene in episode 23 of season three where members of the cast are bouncing lasers off the moon. They are using retro reflectors that were left by Apollo program astronauts. The audience gains that knowledge from the show, which enables them to learn further through Internet inquiries. Some of the best tests of general relativity come from those measurements: measuring how the moon falls in Earth’s gravitational field and how the Earth-moon system itself is falling around the sun.
The Big Bang Theory inspired some students to study physics. Do you think encouraging kids and teens to get interested in science should be a goal of science consulting?
I don’t have an ulterior motive in consulting other than helping the producers and the writers. It’s been a wonderful relationship, where by helping them they have clearly helped science. The show is making likable characters doing what they love and because the writers love science everything else takes care of itself.
Do you find that screenwriters, actors, and other entertainment industry professionals are genuinely interested in science?
I bring a scientist with me to each Big Bang episode taping. Sometimes it is an undergraduate or graduate students in physics. Other times it has been Nobel Laureates. The writers and the entire cast and crew all interact with the visiting scientist and genuinely ask, “What do they do?” That leads me to believe that the crew must be must be representative of society overall, which is people like science.
Why should entertainment industry professionals consider science advising? On the other side, why should scientists considering becoming science consultants?
I have done some consulting for The Exchange and I think it has been useful to people because it has been a source of ideas and solving a particular story problem. It’s more grist for the mill. There was a movie being written and the writer came in and had some special way that he wanted the fictional scientist to communicate about some signals that they wanted to discover. It had to tie in with some themes of the movie and we came up with something that he may not have thought of. It was a somewhat obscure electromagnetic transmission and last time I saw him he liked the idea. It may change and the whole thing might turn into zombies but at least there were more options to choose from.
I have helped introduce people within the scientific community to The Exchange. For example, when Marty Perreault or Rick Loverd sends me a question and I’ll say I am not the right person. However, I know someone else that is. It’s probably happened a dozen times where I have been one step away from the person. In general, it doesn’t take a lot of time and it broadens your horizons. It’s a chance to share what you know with other people who are interested. I think Hollywood is kind of an interesting place to know a little bit about. If you work with Hollywood filmmakers and television makers you are interacting with very driven, creative, and smart people.
Photo credit: Daily Bruin