By Brady Rhoades
Imagine: You’re watching The Big Bang Theory and Sheldon confuses photons with protons. Or Leonard works in degrees when he should be working in radians. Or Raj gets refraction angles wrong. It doesn’t happen. And you can thank the show’s fact checkers for that. Among them is science consultant David Saltzberg, a master physicist.
He and others on the crew who make sure the science is right are the story behind the story of The Big Bang Theory. In hockey terms, Saltzberg is the goalie for the show. The last line of defense. Which matters. Because millions of people—including scientists—are watching, and they will know—and get highly annoyed—if a mistake worms its way through. Saltzberg, who says the writers are extremely careful when it comes to facts, has prevented his share, nonetheless.
“The most amusing one was when Sheldon and Leonard’s mother were working on a scientific problem called quantum brain dynamics theory,” said Saltzberg, who teaches at UCLA and has worked on Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider. “This theory is about how quantum mechanics is important for consciousness in the brain. It’s a highly-disputed theory. But I realized there was nothing we could do because it was so built into the script. I mentioned, ‘There’s probably nothing you can do but this is not a well-accepted theory.’ They fixed it by saying that they were working on disproving quantum brain dynamics theory. They were able to solve it with one word.”
If you’ve seen the show, you know many of the characters—Caltech scientists—are constantly working out their scientific equations on whiteboards. That has spawned a flurry of pitches from real scientists who want their work displayed on the whiteboards. Stephen Hawking, the Einstein of our time, had a whiteboard showing his discovery of gravitational waves, which indicated cosmological inflation, appear in an episode. “That was actually vetted by Hawking himself,” Saltzberg said. “The producers didn’t want to put something on his board that he wouldn’t be comfortable with, so they took what I had suggested and sent a picture to him. He said he liked it.”
Because of the scientists behind the show’s science, there are no hiccups when it comes to the facts and data presented. Fans are convinced of the show’s credibility. We trust that our children can watch it and not only be entertained but educated. Of course, the actors and writers deserve an immense amount of credit for the veracity of the science presented on the program, as well. Dr. Fowler, played by Mayim Bialik, is a scientist; Bialik earned her Ph.D. from UCLA in 2007, her dissertation being an investigation of hypothalamic activity in patients with Prader–Willi syndrome, titled “Hypothalamic regulation in relation to maladaptive, obsessive-compulsive, affiliative, and satiety behaviors in Prader- Willi syndrome.” Try saying that sentence three times. And she’s Saltzberg’s secret weapon when it comes to certain questions. “She has a Ph.D in neuroscience,” Saltzberg said. “So she has my back on the biology.”
And while the other actors are not scientists, they have learned a thing or two about science after a decade immersed in it. “We once got a correction from Sheldon (actor Jim Parsons),” Saltzberg said. “So, Sheldon knows more science than he lets on.”
The Big Bang Theory is a team, and a winning one at that. The program, which debuted in 2007, centers on the lives of lovable, science-obsessed, socially awkward nerds Sheldon, Leonard, Wolowitz, Raj, Amy Fowler and Bernadette. Then there is Penny, who isn’t a scientist but is a character we care about. For the past six years, The Big Bang Theory is the biggest comedy on television by far, now averaging 20 million viewers per episode. Scientists, science lovers, regular folk and, yes, children, don’t dare miss an episode.
In the advertiser-coveted adults aged 18 to 49 demographic, The Big Bang Theory scored a 5.7 this season, nearly doubling the 3.3 rating from season 1. That marks the fourth-straight year (fifth overall) the show has been top comedy in the demo. Jim Parsons, who has won four Emmys as the inimitably quirky Sheldon Cooper, is the highest paid male actor on television, earning about $1 million per episode (and a bunch more on a flurry of endorsement deals). Johnny Galecki, who plays Leonard, and Kaley Cuoco, who plays Penny, also earn about $1 million per show. The show’s creators, Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, have struck gold.
The first and second pilots of The Big Bang Theory were directed by James Burrows, who did not continue with the show. The reworked second pilot led to a 13-episode order by CBS on May 14, 2007. Prior to its airing on CBS, the pilot episode was distributed on iTunes free of charge. The show premiered on Sept. 24, 2007 and was picked up for a full 22-episode season on Oct. 19, 2007. The show is filmed in front of a live audience and is produced by Warner Bros. Television and Chuck Lorre Productions.