Eureka! Real science breaks into TV shows
Once ignored or abused to spice up plots, bona fide study now fills prime-time lineups.
Ron P. Jaffe/CBS
In the space of just 17 months, UCLA astroparticle physicist David Saltzberg has become the nationâs preeminent science teacher. As the consultant to âThe Big Bang Theory,â 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.
âI donât know,â Leonard retorts. âHow do carbon atoms form a benzene ring? Proximity and valence electrons.â
The 200 members of the live studio audience, perched in bleachers overlooking the set, howl at the punch line â and secretly hope there wonât be a test afterward.
âMaybe there are people Googling things they heard on the show,â says Saltzberg, in a recent phone call from a research center in Antarctica. âAs 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.â
Indeed, though scientists may be portrayed as socially inept (âBig Bang Theoryâ), downright eccentric (âThe Eleventh Hourâ), or even completely mad (âFringeâ), televisionâs new wave of lab denizens have become the greatest ambassadors for science since Bill Nye the Science Guy first donned a bow tie. But the respect for these characters comes, in large part, from the real scientists and mathematicians who watchdog the scripts. By steering shows away from the pseudo-scientific jargon of âDoctor Who,â these consultants remind viewers that seemingly arcane principles from Physics 101 have real-world applications.
âMost of the TV writers I meet love science,â says Jennifer Ouellette, director of a National Academy of Science program that connects scientists with entertainment professionals. âThey want to have a very believable, plausible, realistic fiction that they create. They care a lot more about that, in part, because audiences have gotten much more sophisticated. You canât just string a bunch of âscience-yâ things together because people will know youâre faking.â
In âNumb3rs,â a CBS procedural in which a mathematician helps his FBI-agent brother solve crimes, the mathematical verbiage can stack up faster than a Fibonacci sequence. But the showâs fictitious math whiz demonstrates how science permeates aspects of daily life. Want to know how a computerized answering machine can understand what youâre saying over the phone? Watch the Jan. 30 episode, which features a vault thatâs safeguarded by voice recognition, for an explanation of how it all comes down to Fourier transforms and sound wavelets. For extra credit, you can visit âThe Math Behind Numb3rs,â an educational website maintained by show consultant Ed Pegg Jr., which is updated after each episode.
âWe now are basically in charge of all the mathematics in the show,â says Mr. Pegg, who, as an employee of the math and computational software company Wolfram Research in Champaign, Ill., stays abreast of cutting-edge research. âWe will look through some of the mathematical papers we have access to and give them snapshots of pieces that would be really good to add.â
The scientific researchers on the writing staff of âFringeâ go one step further: They imagine what scientists will discover five minutes from now. The showâs Dr. Walter Bishop â part Albert Einstein, part Dr. Frankenstein â assists an FBI task force investigating supernatural cases. Imagine, if you will, an âX-Filesâ in which the X Factor has a fairly plausible scientific explanation.
âWe donât like to say weâre a science-fiction show,â says Robert Chiappetta, a staff writer for the show who often calls his father, a professor of science education at the University of Houston, for scientific answers. âWe like to say weâre a âscience nextâ show.â
Fellow researcher Glen Whitman says they often try to wrap a story around a fascinating piece of science. In one episode, the writers had to create some way to track down a man with an enhanced electromagnetic signature. The two researchers recalled reading about how pigeons use Earthâs magnetic field to navigate. As it turns out, homing pigeons have an enhanced magnetic sense thanks to beaks that are wired to nerves containing magnetic particles. Just as scientists have âreprogrammedâ pigeonsâ sense of magnetic north in experiments, the showâs scientists similarly manipulate the birds to find their man.
âFringeâ is precisely the kind of show that the characters in âThe Big Bang Theoryâ like to pore over. The sitcom regularly includes vignettes in which the four scientists debate science fiction and science fact. The sitcomâs creators, Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, have a similar propensity. When theyâre not obsessing over âBattlestar Galactica,â theyâre keeping up on science literature.
âBoth Chuck and I are science geeks,â says Mr. Prady, who works closely with Saltzberg even on the set. âWhatâs great about David is heâs first and foremost a teacher. Periodically, something will come up and weâll have a discussion and youâll get a little class on it.â
Saltzberg, who is in Antarctica building the worldâs largest neutrino telescope, loves feedback about his contributions. âI think whatâs fun for me is to find when it generates some buzz on the Internet afterward. Especially when people didnât expect the show to get the science right.â