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Eureka! Real science breaks into TV shows

Once ignored or abused to spice up plots, bona fide study now fills prime-time lineups.

Lab life: While the antics of Sheldon (Jim Parsons, right), Howard (Simon Helberg), and their geeky friends are written to be funny, the plots and jokes of “The Big Bang Theory” are often scientifically accurate as well. The CBS show thanks professor David Saltzberg for keeping them honest.

Ron P. Jaffe/CBS

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In the space of just 17 months, UCLA astroparticle physicist David Saltzberg has become the nation’s preeminent science teacher. As the consultant to “The Big Bang Theory,” a CBS sitcom about four dweeby scientists and the pretty blonde who lives across the hall, Dr. Saltzberg gets to share his expertise with an audience of millions.

Sample dialogue from a recent taping: Penny asks Leonard, her experimental-physicist neighbor, how he befriended his geeky colleagues, Howard and Raj.

“I don’t know,” Leonard retorts. “How do carbon atoms form a benzene ring? Proximity and valence electrons.”
The 200 members of the live studio audience, perched in bleachers overlooking the set, howl at the punch line – and secretly hope there won’t be a test afterward.

“Maybe there are people Googling things they heard on the show,” says Saltzberg, in a recent phone call from a research center in Antarctica. “As a physicist, the idea of getting 11 million people to tune in to watch physicists every week is a remarkable opportunity. The fact that they show these scientists, these people, as so passionate, has to be helpful.”


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