The Physics of Physical Comedy

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The Physics of Physical Comedy

David Saltzberg on Science Outreach Via The Big Bang Theory


Jeni Hackett and Elana Urbach, The College of William and Mary

College of William & Mary

Jokes that mention non-inertial reference frames were once relegated to laboratory lunches and meetings between undergraduate science majors. Complex mathematical formulas tended to be feared by the general public. References to cutting-edge science were for science fiction. But now, millions tune in weekly to watch the exploits of four scientists on the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, in which all of the above occur regularly and, more impressively, accurately. Suddenly, physicists are in the spotlight, as entertainers rather than educators.

Ensuring the soundness of the science in The Big Bang Theory is David Saltzberg, a high-energy physicist who studies the particles that rain down on Antarctica from space. He doesn’t write the jokes or have a hand in shaping the show's characters. Instead, he links the writers to the scientific community.

Saltzberg found himself working as a science consultant by chance, through a friend of a friend. “The writers are big geeks,” says Saltzberg. They want, first and foremost, to make the show entertaining but also strive to do it right, to never let bad science slip in, he says.

Listening to his talk, I realized just how much effort is put into making the sitcom not only scientifically accurate, but full of background nods to the scientific community. Whiteboards covered in equations are just the tip of the referential iceberg. According to Saltzberg, if you send in a research poster, it could be used in the background of a scene. We did spot him picking up some PhysCon fliers, and PhysCon did host a poster session… material for the university set’s message board, perhaps?

“We’re broad but not very deep,” Saltzberg explained during our interview with him. This breadth exposes the audience to a wide variety of scientific terms and experiments. What viewers choose to do with this exposure is up to them. One fan actually performed the calculations to fact check a joke. When she got a different answer than the one in the show, she struck up a conversation with Saltzberg about it!

The fact that The Big Bang Theory has become such a hit indicates a shift in the perception of scientists in the popular media. They’re no longer relegated to lab coats (Saltzberg took the writers on a tour of UCLA, where they saw that none of the physicists wore lab coats) and no longer background characters, but are instead brought to the forefront as main characters.

The characters provide an accessible point of reference for the general audience as to what a physicist is. “For people to tune into a sitcom, they have to like the characters,” Saltzberg reiterated throughout his talk and our interview. Penny, the girl next door, also plays an important role. “Every science show has that one character that isn’t a scientist, so [the scientists] can turn to that character to explain what’s going on.” The physicists have to learn to communicate with Penny, and in so doing they gradually expose her to scientific ideas. By explaining science to her, they explain science to the audience.

“It’s pretty clear what I’ll be remembered for at this point,” says Saltzberg. He says he doesn’t find that frustrating. By being involved in the show he helps spread awareness in a subtle way. Anything that gets the general public captivated with (or even just a little bit more understanding of) science is something that we welcome in a prime-time sitcom spot. //

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