Physicist to the Stars
Published Apr 1, 2014 8:00 AM
For seven seasons, he has made sure The Big Bang gets the science right.
UCLA professor David Saltzberg is not your father's college physics instructor. Sure, he teaches undergraduate and graduate physics and conducts research. But did Dad's prof moonlight on a sitcom Saltzberg does — as science consultant on CBS television's top-rated comedy, The Big Bang Theory, which follows a quartet of intellectually superior, socially awkward scientists who work at Caltech, and the equally smart women who love them.
Saltzberg landed the gig through "a friend of a friend of a friend." It's not his first brush with show business — he had been approached by other shows in the past, but the producers either decided not to use a science consultant or the project didn't take off.
"This was different from the start," he says. "The contact I had was directly from the executive producers/showrunners, so I knew this was going to be something special."
For seven seasons, the professor's Big Bang duties have begun in the script-development stage. "The writers know a lot of science and they'll often try their own hand at it, and I'll just look at it and maybe I'll suggest a slight [change]," he says. "At other times, they just leave something in brackets: 'science to come.' " Saltzberg's work also appears on the on-set whiteboards that he fills with equations and insider science tidbits, and on his blog, aptly called The Big Blog Theory, where he explains the science behind many of the episodes.
Saltzberg joined TV's smartest comedy with a stellar résumé: degrees from Princeton University and the University of Chicago, postdoctoral work at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland and, since 1996, a faculty position in UCLA Physics & Astronomy.
Despite his impeccable credentials, Saltzberg admits there is much he doesn't know about science, so sometimes he calls on outside experts. That includes Big Bang cast member Mayim Bialik '00, Ph.D. '07, whose UCLA doctorate in neuroscience comes in handy for her role as a ... neuroscientist.
When the show is filmed in front of a live audience, Saltzberg usually hangs out with the producers and writers, ready to tackle any last-minute science dilemma. Often, he brings guests from the world of physics — graduate students, visiting professors and the occasional Nobel laureate. It's hard to say who's more impressed, he says, the Hollywood insiders or the science gurus.
"I just watch and I'm in awe of what goes on," admits the professor/physicist. "Everyone has incredible attention to detail."