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Television Science

Ask David Saltzberg About Being The Big Bang Theory's Science Advisor 226

For seven seasons Dr. David Saltzberg has made sure the science on the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory is correct. As science consultant for the show he reviews scripts for technical errors, fixing any problems he finds. He also adds complex formulae to whiteboards on set. Before his life as a science advisor, Saltzberg received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago, performed post-graduate work at CERN, and currently is a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at UCLA. He writes The Big Blog Theory, where he explains the science behind each episode of the show. Dr. Saltzberg has agreed to answer any questions you have about the show or his previous scientific work. As usual, ask as many as you'd like, but please, one per post.
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Ask David Saltzberg About Being The Big Bang Theory's Science Advisor

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 04, 2014 @12:16PM (#47826765)
    Were you ridiculed at all in your youth for being interested in science? Do you feel the show promotes acceptance towards those of us who enjoy the various sciences? Or does it perpetuate the stereotype that if someone is interested in science then they must be socially inept and interactively dysfunctional?

    If your answer is the former option, I personally fail to see it in the show.
  • Advancing science (Score:4, Interesting)

    by korbulon ( 2792438 ) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @12:18PM (#47826825)
    By exposing a mass audience to scientific principles and archetypes, do you think a show like Big Bang Theory somehow advances the cause of science, or is it basically irrelevant?
  • by korbulon ( 2792438 ) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @12:21PM (#47826885)
    Why do you think a show like BBT has been such a huge hit with a wide audience given its geeky characters and plot devices?
  • Are you a "geek"? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by krygny ( 473134 ) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @12:22PM (#47826903)

    ... meaning, do you also provide input on some of the pop-culture in the show (e.g., Star Trek, Star Wars, comic books, Dr Who, etc.)?

  • Let's be honest -- the Big Bang Theory isn't about laughing with nerds; it's about laughing at nerds.

    • by Just Some Guy ( 3352 ) <> on Thursday September 04, 2014 @12:47PM (#47827331) Homepage Journal

      As long as we're being honest: my friends and I think it's hilarious. We've all been Leonard, probably too often for comfort, and we all have at least one friend from the rest of the gang. They talk about stuff we enjoy and do things (we would hate to admit that) we do. It's not Fine Art, sure, but it's fun.

      Even though the show is basically about me and my friends (and apparently you and your friends, too), I never felt like it was making fun of me.

      • I actually can't relate to the characters at all. I'm all for self-deprecating humor (unless it's fishing for compliments under the guise of humor), but the show isn't about nerds laughing at themselves; it's about non-nerds laughing at nerds, and nerds not "getting" what's so funny.

        A show like Futurama or even Silicon Valley is more for nerds, and doesn't apologize for making jokes that most people won't actually get. They laugh at themselves as well. Although Silicon Valley is only moderately funny, IM

        • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

          by rikkards ( 98006 )

          This, it's essentially nerd blackface.

        • by AthanasiusKircher ( 1333179 ) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @04:12PM (#47829529)

          but the show isn't about nerds laughing at themselves; it's about non-nerds laughing at nerds, and nerds not "getting" what's so funny.

          That's your opinion, and you're certainly welcome to it. I've mostly seen early seasons of the show, but my impression is that it's only partly about what you say.

          In general, the show is often about a failure to communicate. The non-nerds laugh at the nerds, it's true, but the nerds get plenty opportunities to laugh at the non-nerds too. Have you seriously missed all the jokes made at Penny's expense? (And I'm not talking about Sheldon's weird attempts at humor that the other nerds often don't find funny -- I mean jokes about Penny's ridiculousness, her ineptitude, her inability to function in some everyday tasks, etc.)

          The show points out the problems that both sides have with ineffective communication, and that's a big source of humor. But, on the other hand, the show celebrates the virtues of both sides too. The nerds often solve problems or do awesome things, and the non-nerds are suitably impressed -- when the problem solved is actually something "practical" and not something having to do with comic books or sci-fi or some weird technological achievement with no obvious practical benefit. Penny sometimes occasionally demonstrates some sort of "obvious" solution to a problem that the nerds missed because they got mired in details and couldn't see the simple solution. Both of these things happen in real life, too.

          So, if you don't like the show, don't watch it. But I'd say that the "non-nerds laughing at nerds" is only one part of the show. It's a pretty "equal opportunity offender" in targeting the ridiculous characteristics of ALL characters, nerd and non-nerd alike.

      • We've all been Leonard

        Did you act like you were into chicks, all the while making a huge blip on the gadar screen??

    • And when the show makes fun of Penny's lack of knowledge, supposed promiscuity, and financial issues (due to her choice of the acting profession), are we laughing at nerds? The show makes fun of the characters more than anything else. Like when Penny was making fun of Leonard for being a cry baby during Toy Story 3. "The toys were holding hands in a furnace!" was his retort. When I went to see it in the theaters, there was audible sobbing during that scene.
      • by Kjella ( 173770 )

        Like when Penny was making fun of Leonard for being a cry baby during Toy Story 3. "The toys were holding hands in a furnace!" was his retort. When I went to see it in the theaters, there was audible sobbing during that scene.

        It's okay, it's the 21st century and men are allowed to cry now. Wuzz.

  • Geeks AND Nerds (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Why are characters that are supposedly very intelligent so obsessed with fiction, specifically superheroes?

    • You have to watch the show since Sheldon explains why in one of the episodes.

  • At the moment before the Big Bang, science doesn't claim to know what was happening. There was no observable universe, except possibly for a massive singularity, which gravity would lock together with unimaginable force. Do you feel the subsequent events were caused by something, or Someone? If so, what or who?
    • by fisted ( 2295862 )

      At the moment before the Big Bang

      That's not a meaningful thing to say. Time began with the Big Bang (as per the standard model).
      It's like asking what's 1m to the north of the north pole

  • by Higaran ( 835598 ) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @12:34PM (#47827095)
    Was there anything that you tried to put in the show they they told you wouldn't be put in because it was to complex, or for some other reason. I know there is a lot of stuff that made it in, but what didn't get in there that you tried for?
  • Does it ever bother you that you're contributing to a show that derives most of its jokes from the stereotype of scientists (especially male scientists) as pathologically awkward, abrasive, and antisocial? Do you ever worry that this risks marginalizing the profession and perpetuating the already-poor representation of women in science? How do you think a teenage girl will react to a sitcom where the one "normal" woman is a waitress, and the female scientists are mousy, nerdy, nearsighted, almost as awkwa

  • by peter303 ( 12292 ) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @12:49PM (#47827381)
    Even though the charcters are awkward, they seem to have much more lively social lives than when I was in grad school. The students were almost all male then.
  • by chubs ( 2470996 ) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @12:52PM (#47827413)
    A lot of the comments/questions I've read so far are from geeks who seem to feel that BBT perpetuates stereotypes about geeks and does more harm than good to the geek community. Outside of slashdot, do you typically get this kind of response (where non-geeks think it's funny and geeks think it's somehow offensive)? For the record, I consider myself to be a geek and I really enjoy BBT, though, as mentioned elsewhere, the humor is not nearly as intelligent as the show's characters are supposed to be. That's fine, though. Every once in a while it's fun to pick up a show where every average intelligence (and most sub-par intelligence) Americans will get every joke.
    • This may be the only question that really needs to be answered. There's very strong feelings about "Big Bang Theory" -- some negative -- and for this to be a real conversation, it probably needs to be addressed in some way.

      In fact, I'm curious what made Dr. Saltzberg come to Slashdot. Are the producers aware of a "geek backlash", and are they attempting to address it by sending their show's technical adviser to Slashdot? Are we secretly being monitored for a later article about how real geeks all love
      • By "this is the only question that matters," I meant "Do all geeks hate the show?" (From the parent comment.) And not my own question, "Are we being used right now..."
    • I'm of the same opinion as you. I love the show and I was victim of some of these stereotypes portrayed on the show. The show helps display what nerds/geeks go through in real life. I think it does more good than harm. The reality is that we all somewhat grow out of it while still enjoying portion of what made us nerds/geeks in the first place.

      Today nerds/geeks are not viewed the same way as before. They aren't picked on at school and they are rather a fairly large percentage of the student population. Fact

    • I'm a geek and I liked it. Past tense 'cause the changes kinda made it stale for me, but the idea itself is funny. Yes, it plays on stereotypes. Heavily. Well, DUH, you don't say. Really? A sitcom that exploits stereotypes about a group? Now that's unheard of.

      That's what makes it funny. Yes. there are geeks that are awkward, there are geeks that are into Star Trek, there are geeks that are into comic books, there are geeks that have ... $Sheldon_Idiosyncrasy, yes, they exist. But not in one person! Such a p

  • How long does it take to travel 80 miles if you're going 80 mph? Surely someone with your math and science creds can finally give a definitive answer.

  • There has been a very impressive list of tech or geek related guest star appearances on the show (Stan Lee, Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, ...).

    Do you have any control over who guest appearances are written for?

    Are there any tech related people who you would like to have on the show as a guest star, but have been unable to get?

  • by mocm ( 141920 ) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @01:34PM (#47827881)

    It used to be that most of the scientists from US universities I met at international physics conferences or summer schools were green card holders or recent immigrants. There were hardly any american born ones. Did that change in the last 20 years or does the show slightly misrepresent that ratio.
    I am asking because in his way Sheldon reminds me of some Russian physicists I used to know.

  • by MiniMike ( 234881 ) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @01:37PM (#47827917)

    The show touches on a somewhat wide range of technology and culture. There must be science related questions that are outside your area of expertise. Who do you contact for advice when you need it?

  • by mschuyler ( 197441 ) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @01:38PM (#47827923) Homepage Journal

    Although I realize you are a "physicist," not a "psychologist," it's still one of those "phy" type words. What do you think of Slashdot's (so far) overwhelmingly negative reaction to its editors asking for questions about the SCIENCE of the show for the show's SCIENCE ADVISOR and instead getting comments about the show's characterizations, humor, laugh track, and a fixation on the size of Kaley Cuoco's breasts? As the show's SCIENCE ADVISOR are you in a position to change or influence any of these "transgressions?"

    Is this proof that the Geekdom of Slashdot is not capable of paying attention to the question at hand and has completely missed the point, were all forced to play the cello as kids, are letting their pent up emotions get in the way of asking an intelligent question and instead choose to lash out at a show they all watch, or still, after all these years, are incapable of getting laid? Or all of the above?

  • There's an exchange Sheldon hems and haws about the RAM - PS4's 8 GB GDDR5 vs XBOX One's 8 GB DDR3 + 32 MB eSRAM.
    Everyone knows the 32 MB of eSRAM doesn't mean shit compared to the raw bandwidth advantage the PS4 has. Why was the 32 MB eSRAM considered a point for XBOX One? It would be like comparing a 2-legged runner to a 1-legged runner and saying "But the one legged runner does have a detachable peg leg.".

  • Why are you posting an AMA on slashdot instead of reddit?

    • because this is a better moderated forum with less noise from dumb/troll/flamebait commentors

      reddit is great because of the breadth and diversity of comments...but it is still the 'open internet'...AMA's are anarchy

      also /. just has better commenters for tech stuff

      again, reddit has diversity which /. is sorely lacking, and is 'faster' on a few things...but /. still has the best comments

      best to see it as *more* options not a competition...reddit, slashdot, and for me valleywag all have value ad

  • by globaljustin ( 574257 ) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @02:05PM (#47828323) Journal

    Mr. Saltzberg, thanks for taking questions! It's much appreciated.

    My question: Do the writers (or actors) ever ask you about your daily life or your experiences as a scientist? What non-scientific/factual input have they asked from you?

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @02:08PM (#47828353)

    What was the hardest bit of scientific inaccuracy to fight, because the writers deemed it necessary to keep it "wrong"?

  • by tekrat ( 242117 ) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @02:31PM (#47828615) Homepage Journal

    I have watched the show off an on, I somehow missed the first three seasons entirely -- but as a rather "normal" geek (I have a social life beyond playing D&D and videogames, I even work on cars and ride a motorcycle) -- I have to ask if you can offer any advice about scoring a smoking hot chick on the level of Penny -- I fail to see what it is Leonard offers in the relationship that appeals to Penny, other than complete monogamy.

    She is simply so out of his league in terms of looks that ironically, that's the portion of the show I find the most hilarious. The real world simply doesn't work that way and I challenge you to find an example to prove me wrong (excluding billionaires, of course, we all know a fat wallet makes you more attractive).

  • by oh_my_080980980 ( 773867 ) on Thursday September 04, 2014 @03:16PM (#47829079)
    In season 3 episode 1, where Sheldon was being mocked for saying he confirmed string theory, Sheldon gave a speech about Einstein and Einstein's greatest blunder, the cosmological constant. Barry Kripke responded that research into dark matter vindicated the cosmological constant and therefore it was not a blunder.

    The problem - the assertion by Barry Kripke was wrong. Einstein's blunder was he invented the cosmological constant to show a static universe. At the time it was not known if the universe was moving or not. Einstein's early equations showed a moving universe. That bothered him, so he invented the cosmological constant to show a static universe. Later Einstein met astronomer Irwin Hubble who was able to show Einstein the universe was moving and not static. The cosmological constant was a blunder in that it was used to show a static universe. The fact that the cosmological constant was used elsewhere successfully is irrelevant; that did not change the mistake Einstein made.

    Someone should have picked up in that.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Do any of the actors have an interest in learning about physics? Or do they just read their lines and that's it?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 04, 2014 @03:31PM (#47829213)

    Do the writers "dumb down" your scientific advice in order to make the material more accessible to a general viewing audience?

  • Have you had many of your own jokes / comic ideas worked into the dialogue, too? (Another way to ask this: is it too late by the time you're asked to give some credence to the writers' portrayal of science to re-write some of it more thoroughly?)

  • What was it like working with occasional guest star Stephen Hawking?

  • Who was responsible for accuracy in other areas? The part where they're in a string quartet is one of the poster children for Bad in the classical community. []

  • In addition to being a science consultant, do the writers ask you to be a stand-in Caltech (culture) consultant?
    If so, do you actually have an sub-consultant for that, or do you just base it on generic post-doc culture? (seems to be the latter, but I'm curious)

  • In the last 3+ seasons of Big Bang, we've seen a gradual switch from a Science based show that we loved, to a generic "just your average TV show" with stories that can appeal to more viewers.

    With less of the "science and informative" show we originally fell in love. And the fact it appealed to those who had an IQ above 100. Do you have more time on your hands now the show is mainly filled with "day to day" storylines to increase viewers below that IQ range?

"The eleventh commandment was `Thou Shalt Compute' or `Thou Shalt Not Compute' -- I forget which." -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982