Special thanks to Dave Zobel for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – The Science of TV’s the Big Bang Theory: Explanations Even Penny Would Understand
In addition to his seven-year stint as a writer for public radio’s The Loh Down on Science, Dave Zobel has penned segments for the University of Texas at Austin’s StarDate, NPR’s Day to Day, and the game show Says You! A science pundit who’s appeared on G4 and Discovery, Zobel sits on the board of Trash for Teaching, an L.A. not-for-profit that rescues manufacturers’ discards and repurposes them as science and art kits for schools. He lives in California. – From Publisher’s Website
#1 – What was the impetus for The Science of Tv’s The Big Bang Theory?
From day one, Bill Prady and Chuck Lorre, the co-creators of The Big Bang Theory, have always insisted upon scientific accuracy.
They didn’t have to do that. Yes, The Big Bang Theory is a show about scientists and engineers, but it’s also a sitcom, and no one would have objected if, week after week, the characters were to spew nothing but buzzword baths (“blah blah wormholes, blah blah supercomputers”) and outright technobabble (androids and phasers and Borg, oh my!). You don’t tune into a sitcom to learn about science, any more than you would tune into Star Trek to learn about international relations.
But for various reasons, Prady and Lorre wanted every speck of science on the show to be grounded in legitimate present-day research topics. To that end, they hired a science consultant — UCLA’s David Saltzberg — to make sure that all the science and math, whether discussed in depth, mentioned once, or merely glimpsed in the background, is not only plausible but timely.
Their decision, and Saltzberg’s diligence, are what made this book possible.
ECW Press is the publisher of many, many in-depth guides to TV shows (Sherlock, Glee, House, Mad Men, Lost, Buffy, etc., etc.). They’re completely independent of any network, studio, production company, or talent agency, which means that their books don’t have to go through twelve layers of nondisclosure checks and ego strokes. Being asked by them to write a guide to the science of The Big Bang Theory was a huge honor.
#2 – You are using moments from the show as a way of teaching people about science. How did you come to choose the sections/examples that you have used? What was your favourite example/moment from the series you included in the book?
I’m told that you can enjoy the book without ever having seen the show, and that’s gratifying, because in some sense the show only serves as an excuse for me to bring up some of my favorite scientific concepts. That’s why every chapter opens with a snippet of dialogue: just as a way of setting the atmosphere, of saying to the reader, “Ooh, look, here’s something they mentioned on the show and hey, aren’t you just a little curious about it? Of course you are!”
Of all the dialogue snippets in the book, my favorite is the one heading the chapter on the famous double-slit experiment. That’s the experiment that unambiguously demonstrated the dual nature of Nature. Particles can act like waves, and waves can act like particles, but if you try to catch them in the act of behaving like each other, then they won’t do it. It’s as though they can somehow sense that you’re spying on them. The double-slit experiment was voted by the readers of Physics World magazine as the “most beautiful experiment” of all time — a pretty extraordinary honor (not to mention a pretty extraordinary phrase).
In the dialogue that opens the chapter, Sheldon gives a brief and unimpassioned overview of the experiment and its mind-boggling results. I love that line for its succinctness and for its profound implications. But I especially love it because it’s the very first line in the very first scene in the very first episode of the show.
Think about it: Here’s a brand-new sitcom, about a bunch of super-smart and socially awkward people, and the curtain rises on a rapid-fire synopsis of one of the most inscrutable mysteries in all of Creation. What a huge risk! (Would super-smart and socially awkward even translate to funny? Not necessarily. An earlier attempt at a pilot episode, taped the year previously, had gone over poorly with test audiences and was never aired. Then again, that version opens with a Rubik’s cube visual gag — gee, who doesn’t love a Rubik’s cube visual gag? — followed by a discussion of what Sheldon has found in his pants.)
Doubtless many viewers who tuned into CBS that first evening were expecting either the gravitas of NUMB3RS or the outright buffoonery of Two and a Half Men. What they got was a subtle combination of both.
#3 – You sound like a big fan. Did you use this excuse to watch the entire series? How did you go about your research of the show, both for content but also for the book?
I have to confess that when the show first aired, it creeped me out a little. Four social maladroits and a blithe ingenue, all gawking clumsily at one another? There was no denying it was funny, but it also took me back to my college days — and I imagine it retraumatized many of my classmates as well. I certainly didn’t suppose that a show about smart people acting foolishly would have worldwide appeal or would last very long.
I began researching the book by taking notes on the scientific topics referenced in each episode, including some that were purely visual: the giant DNA model in Sheldon and Leonard’s living room, for instance, or the meson diagram on their fridge, or the equations loitering on their ubiquitous whiteboards. I knew I would only be able to fit a fraction of those topics into the book. But I didn’t just pick the low-hanging fruit — things I felt I already understood and that would be easy for me to explain. Instead, I tried to pick topics I found particularly interesting and exciting, and as a result I ended up learning a lot more science than I already knew. And the thing I learned best was how much I still had to learn.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out that a lot of the concepts in modern science are really hard to understand, and even harder to explain concisely. In particular, I wish I had found room for two rather obvious topics. One is Sheldon’s beloved string theory, and the other is the actual Big Bang theory itself. But I haven’t given up hope, and I’ll be covering both of them in my blog, “The Sound of One Nerd Laughing” (OneNerdLaughing.com), which has been acting as a sort of infinite appendix to the book.
Research can take an author in unexpected directions. Many viewers don’t realize that the place where most of the principal characters work — Caltech — really exists: it’s the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena. The book features a recurring sidebar called “eureka! @ caltech.edu,” which profiles the work of dozens of real-life researchers at the real-life Caltech and then ties it back to the research the characters are doing on the show. And several famous people were kind enough to give me quotes to use in the book. Stephen Hawking, Julie Newmar (Sheldon’s favorite Catwoman — and mine, too), Gordon Moore (of Moore’s Law), Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart, satellite pioneer Howard Rosen, songwriter Tom Lehrer, and many others all took the time to send me their thoughts about the show and its connection to real-world science.
#4 – Who have you written this book for? What feedback have you received about the book?
My goal was to write a book that the general public might find intriguing and perhaps amusing, regardless of their level of familiarity with science, with math, or even with The Big Bang Theory. The most important thing was not to scare them off with the word science. Some people have taken exception to the subtitle, Explanations Even Penny Would Understand, but that isn’t meant to be a dig at the Pennys of the world. Science is really just applied curiosity, and everyone is curious . . . so in a way, everyone’s a scientist. Even Penny. She just may not have recognized it yet.
If I could, I’d give two copies of the book to every middle- and high-school science teacher in the country. One copy would be for the student who adores science, who loves to learn, who devours every new discovery and aces every test and bubbles over with enthusiasm for new knowledge — because that kid is curious.
The other copy would be for the kid who hates science class, who can’t see the relevance of any of it, who imagines that scientists are all nerds in bow ties and horn-rims and white lab coats. Because that kid is curious, too.
#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?
I’m producing the audiobook of Stairlift to Heaven, a hilarious memoir by my favorite British humorist, Terry Ravenscroft. It’s narrated by Christopher Godwin, a brilliantly versatile British actor, and is based on Terry’s discovery that once you’ve reached a certain age, people will let you get away with quite a lot of very naughty behavior that you would’ve been taken to task for when you were younger.
One of the joys of aging, I suppose.
[Image Credit: http://www.trashforteaching.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Dave-Zobel-2-2015.jpg ]