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The Man Who Gets The Science Right On 'The Big Bang Theory'

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Sure, Bob Newhart may have won his first Emmy for guest-starring as Professor Proton on the hugely popular show The Big Bang Theory, about four young scientists at Caltech. But behind the scenes is a real-life professor, David Saltzberg of UCLA.

Saltzberg studies high-energy particle physics and high-energy neutrino astronomy, using radio-detection techniques when he's not working as The Big Bang Theory's science consultant.




"It's just like a physics lab!" Saltzberg exclaims as he maneuvers around the show's sprawling set. "You have to watch where you walk. There are cables and everything everywhere."

Every week, Saltzberg attends the show's live taping at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif. He makes sure the whiteboards are correct. For every new episode, they're covered by a fresh scrawl of formulas dreamed up by Saltzberg and admired by physicists for their scrupulous accuracy — and occasional shoutouts to what's happening in the world of science.

"The whiteboards have dozens of fans," Saltzberg jokes.

Saltzberg also reviews scripts in progress. They arrive with unfinished dialogue and brackets reading, "Insert Science Here." He fills in the blanks, as in an episode where Dr. Sheldon Cooper, a puffed-up theoretical physicist, keeps bumming rides from a neighbor.

"She couldn't understand why Sheldon never got a driver's license," Saltzberg explains. When she asks what Sheldon was doing at age 16, when everyone else was learning to drive, he answers, as per Saltzberg, "Examining perturbative amplitudes in N=4 supersymmetric theories, leading to a reexamination of the ultraviolet properties of multiloop N=8 supergravity, using modern twistor theory."

As it happens, that's "a real, important project that one of my friends is working on," Saltzberg says.

The scientist got involved with The Big Bang Theory in 2007, when the show was little more than a theoretical construct. The set designers asked him to show them some real graduate students' apartments, so they could see how young scientists really live.

"And they did a nice, faithful re-creation of their apartments," he said, adding that after CBS tested the show, the sets were scrapped, because, Saltzberg thinks, the sets were too depressing.


Saltzberg gets backup from actress Mayim Bialik, who happens to have a PhD in neuroscience. (Her character, Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler, is also a neuroscientist.) She helps Saltzberg fine-tune the show's scientific details.

"Like, what kind of microscope would they be using, or how thin should these slices be," she offers as an example.

For his part, Saltzberg has gotten in front of the camera exactly once. He was an extra in a scene in a university cafeteria, when the nebbishy Howard Wolowitz shares a thrilling milestone: He finally has a girlfriend. Saltzberg describes his acting technique thusly: "I just looked at him like, what's your problem? Why are you bothering me? I'm a physicist. I have other things to think about."


Rest at the source


Where my fellow ONTD scientists at?  I'm technically a mathematician but I have a minor in physical chemistry, which is basically quantum-level and kinetic chemisry.  I don't watch this show but I do have friends who say it's science-lite, lol.


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