Have you ever watched the popular television comedy called “The Big Bang Theory” and noticed complex formulas written on the character Sheldon’s white boards? Unless you are an accomplished mathematician, you would have no way of knowing that the formulas — every one of them — are real. In fact, the show’s creators have an actual scientist who helps them keep the show — whose new season is premiering on Sept. 22 — scientifically literate.
The physicist who advises the show, about the lives of two brilliant physicist friends at the California Institute of Technology, is David Saltzberg, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California at Los Angeles. Saltzberg checks all the scripts, suggests possible scientific “plots” to the writers, hosts Nobel laureates and other scientists at rehearsals through his “Geek of the Week” program, and accepts submissions from scientists around the world who send him their formulas to be displayed on Sheldon’s white board. He writes occasionally on a blog that explains some of the science in the show, and finds time to do his full-time job teaching.
Saltzberg was born and raised in Middleton, N.J.. One of his two older sisters is a statistician, and the other is a genetic counselor. He father is a retired electrical engineer, and his mom a homemaker who encouraged his scientific interest. In junior and senior high, he seemed as if he were on track to become a chemist, what with his frequent experiments with a friend who’s dad was a chemist, including efforts to combine sulphur and wax to make stink bombs. But in 11th grade, he took physics, and his future course was determined.
Saltzberg attended Princeton University, where he majored in physics, then earned a PhD in physics at the world-famous Fermi Lab at the University of Chicago. He went to Cern, Switzerland, to do post-doc work, though it was before the construction of the famous Hadron Collider, the largest and most powerful particle collider in the world. (The Collider was the subject of an episode of the “Big Bang” called “The Large Hadron Collision when the character of experimental physicist Leonard Hofstadter ( IQ 173), played by Johnny Galecki, is going to Switzerland to see the Collider, and theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper (IQ 187), played by Jim Parsons, wants to go with him but isn’t invited.”)
In the mid-1990s he was invited to apply for a job at UCLA, and he has been there, teaching physics and conducting research, ever since. He leads a research group of graduate and post-doc students that works at the Collider – and he also teaches introductory physics to college freshmen, a job he thinks all professors should do to avoid getting “stale.” He noted that his “students have learned that I am not the one who provides the jokes on the show.”
Saltzberg gets the scripts weeks in advance and sees the writers frequently to tease out ideas for scientific narratives. “They say they are thinking about something and then ask, ‘What do you think?’” Last season, Sheldon became disillusioned with his 20-year pursuit of string theory – which postulates that everything in the universe was createad by tiny “strings” of energy that constantly vibrate in 11 different dimensions –and decided to give it up. Saltzman said the writers posed this question to him: “If Sheldon broke up with string theory, what else might he do?”
If Sheldon is writing something on a white board, Saltzberg is on set to make sure it is accurate. Every one of the formulas is real – the work of scientists from around the world who e-mail Saltzberg for the opportunity to have their work put on the board. Saltzman also attends rehearsals on a weekly basis and, through what he calls the “Geek of the Week” program, he brings scientists with him – even Nobel laureates — who want to see the showt up close and personal. Saltzman reports that the cast and crew are always welcoming to him and his guests.
So how did a UCLA professor get a gig being a technical adviser for a show that is set at Caltech? A friend of a friend knew the executive producers and suggested him for the job as science adviser after the decision was made to try to stay true to the science. Given that the show is a comedy, the show’s creators certainly didn’t have to, but, Saltzberg said, “they made the creative decision that they wanted to have the science right.”
“I am very lucky,” he said. “This is one of the great fortunes in my life. You can’t play for something like this. It just drops in your lap.”
(Correction: Fixing headline)