Real-Life Physics Problems Star On TV

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The stars of The Big Bang Theory are two fictional Caltech physicists, but the physics problems they study are real. Bill Prady, the program's co-creator and executive producer, talks about including real-world science in the script, from dark matter to magnetic monopoles.


Up next, string theory on your TV. All you science nerds out there, isn't more fun to watch a sitcom where the main characters are scientists and they're talking about science stuff all the time? You've got the Large Hadron Collider, neutrinos, dark energy, magnetic monopoles. Well, we're not talking about "Nova" here. We're talking about "The Big Bang Theory."

The two main characters are physicists from Caltech, with some troubles in love, of course. This is a TV show. But they're working on real physics problems and it's actually, if you watch next Monday night, you'll see that one of the guests makes an appearance on SCIENCE FRIDAY. So we want you to tune in. We want to talk about how they come up with those topics. Are they true to life? Do the writers all have PhDs themselves?

Joining me now is Bill Prady. He's co-creator and executive producer of "The Big Bang Theory." Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. BILL PRADY (Co-Creator/Executive Producer, "The Big Bang Theory"): My pleasure to be with you, Ira.

FLATOW: Tell us how ideas get generated for the topics you're going to discuss.

Mr. PRADY: Well, one of the things that's been very important to us from the beginning was that the science that our characters are doing be real science. So we've been working with a professor of astrophysics named David Saltzberg, who's at UCLA, to vet the science that we're doing, to make sure that we give them real projects, that the dialogue, that the things they say, you know, is the kind of thing that if you were an actual physicist watching the show, you wouldn't be screaming at the television, that's not how we talk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Right.

Oh, this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Bill Prady.

And do you leave holes in the script to say: We need some science in here. Let's go get it.

Mr. PRADY: Well, we actually do it a couple of ways, Ira. Sometimes, if we just need a little bit of, you know, little incidental dialogue about, you know, honey, how was your day at work? Well, we had a big problem with the something-something machine. We'll actually leave a little hole that says science to come, and Dr. Saltzberg will plug something in for us.

Sometimes, though, a piece of science is a big, integral part of the plot, and so we'll consult with him beforehand and say, you know, what -you know, give us something that Leonard might be working on, something Sheldon might be working on, something where they might be approaching a breakthrough, or the area where they're - they've hit a - you know, they've gone down a blind alley or something. And we'll talk ahead of time, and he'll help us develop�

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PRADY: �an area of science they might be working on.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Now, there's some blogger - bloggers have criticized the show by saying that it reinforces the uncool, the nerdy stereotypes.

Mr. PRADY: Well, we say we're not doing a show about all scientists. We're doing a show about these scientists.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PRADY: We have depicted other kinds of physicists on the show. In fact, Penny once fell for a colleague of Leonard's who was a leather jacket-wearing, motorcycle-riding physicist. And we're bringing a character on board who is a woman who's a microbiologist. So we're expanding the world a little bit. But, you know, in the same way that, you know, Dr. Hartley on "The Bob Newhart Show" wasn't all psychologists�

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. PRADY: �these aren't all scientists.

FLATOW: Well, I know that one of your characters makes an appearance on SCIENCE FRIDAY next Monday.

Mr. BRADY: Sheldon does. Sheldon appears on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

FLATOW: Sheldon. How did you come up with a magnetic monopole topic for that show?

Mr. PRADY: Well, magnetic monopoles is something that Sheldon's been working on for a while, and it came out of our need to send him to the North Pole. So we asked Dr. Saltzberg very specifically, give us an area of research that Sheldon is working on that he would work on at the Arctic Circle, where he would need to bring along an experimental physicist, an engineer and an astrophysicist. And he said, well, that's a tough one. Let me think about it for a while. And he called up a couple of hours later, and he says I've got it. They're looking for magnetic monopoles, you know, predicted by string theory. And you would look for them up at the North Pole, and you'd need an engineer and you'd need an astrophysicist. It's perfect.


Mr. PRADY: So that's what Sheldon's been working on for a while. Then, in real life, researchers did a paper saying that they had found them, and Dr. Saltzberg grumbled a little bit. And he said, - well, they didn't quite find them. So we thought that maybe Sheldon would be irritated about that, too.


Mr. PRADY: So he was going on SCIENCE FRIDAY to talk about that.

FLATOW: Yeah. Do you find teachers writing and saying thank you for bringing up science topics at all?

Mr. PRADY: We get a lot of feedback from scientists and from science educators who are glad that when we do science on the show, it's right. We have - you know, in addition to covering obscure things like what's going on at the Large Hadron Collider, we've also had moments where we've talked about just the most basic elements of physics, like Leonard and Sheldon, you know, trying to figure out, you know, the math of an inclined plane�

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PRADY: �as they try to get a heavy box up the stairs. So we keep them consistent top to bottom.

FLATOW: Well, Bill Prady, we thank you for doing that.

Mr. PRADY: My pleasure. And I look forward to hearing you on our show on Monday night.

FLATOW: Monday night, "The Big Bang Theory." Bill Prady, co-creator, executive producer of "The Big Bang Theory," joining us from Los Angeles today.

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