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Sitcoms Consult Scientists For Accuracy


To put a 30-minute TV show on the air, you need actors, producers, directors, camera people and a physicist - at least for some shows. More and more shows now rely on scientists to keep the facts straight in a plot. Astroparticle physicist David Saltzberg is a consultant to the CBS sitcom "The Big Bang Theory," a show about a socially awkward geeky scientist. He joins us from McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Dr. Saltzberg, thanks so much for being with us.

Dr. DAVID SALTZBERG (Astroparticle Physicist): Oh, my pleasure.

SIMON: What's an astroparticle physicist?

Dr. SALTZBERG: I'm actually trained as a particle physicist, and my interests over the years have drifted a little more towards astronomical questions. And we're using the tools of particle physics to do a little astronomy. And so people in this situation call ourselves astroparticle physicists.

SIMON: So how do you help out a sitcom?

Dr. SALTZBERG: They send me the scripts a couple weeks in advance, and I look them over and see if there is anything that would make a physicist cringe when they might hear it. And I get, for example, if someone is doing an experiment or has a new piece of apparatus, I get a chance to fill it in.

SIMON: So for example, if you get a script that has a scientist referring to the Earth being flat, you say, no, no, no, it's actually round.

Dr. SALTZBERG: That's right, I say, almost but round. Exactly.

SIMON: Do you ever branch out into other forms of advice of like, I mean, do you ever say something like, that's not funny?

DR. SALTZBERG: They have a lot more experience with comedy than I have at physics, so I tried to pretty much stay away from that. Once in a while I try to pitch a joke and we see how far it goes, and I think in a total of 30 episodes, I've only gotten one through. So, I think we'll let the professionals stay with the comedy.

SIMON: My experience with comedy writers has been, one out of 30 is not bad. Can you give us an astroparticle what do you call yourself, (laughing) astroparticle physicist joke?

Dr .SALTZBERG: Astroparticle physics?

SIMON: Yes, can you give us a joke about that? One astrophysicist walks into a bar. Bartender says...

Dr. SALTZBERG: We have one like this one. A proton walks into a black hole.

SIMON: Yeah, yeah. (Laughing) Oh, I get it. Well, that's very good. So is - do the show business people ever say, thanks for your advice, doctor, but we think we're going to stick with what we have?

Dr. SALTZBERG: Sure, it's their show. But the writers love science. When I have an idea for a (unintelligible) to come or a small correction, they're genuinely interested in the reason.

SIMON: Dr. Saltzberg, what are doing in Antarctica?

Dr. SALTZBERG: We're building a telescope down here. But it's not a telescope that uses light, it's a telescope that uses particles called neutrinos. And neutrinos don't like to interact very much, and they are very hard to catch. So we need an enormous telescope, and we're using the Antarctic ice sheet as the first piece of our telescope. So, we have a million-square kilometer telescope.

SIMON: Is it a little hard to work down there as a scientist and not have a laugh track?

Dr. SALTZBERG: (Laughing) We have a lot of laughter going on here.

SIMON: Thanks very much, astroparticle physicist in UCLA professor David Saltzberg speaking from McMurdo Station. Thank you, doctor.

Dr. SALTZBERG: You're welcome.

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.