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See Inside Scientific American Volume 308, Issue 5

How CBS’s The Big Bang Theory Humanizes Scientists

The co–executive producer of CBS's hit comedy and author of the forthcoming book Does Santa Exist? A Cheerful Philosophical Investigation talks about how his show helps to humanize scientists



COURTESY OF ERIC KAPLAN

PROFILE
Eric Kaplan

TITLE
Co–executive producer, The Big Bang Theory

LOCATION
Los Angeles

Is science education an important part of The Big Bang Theory, which revolves around two physicist roommates and their friends?

It bears a family resemblance to science education. What we try to do is to make people feel that scientists are real people and that science is something that real people, like themselves, could do.

How do you balance scientific discourse with character development?

We try not to make too strong a dualism between the two because our characters are people who care passionately about science. For example, we had a fight between Sheldon [a main character], who is a physicist, and his girlfriend, Amy, who is a neuroscientist. And the content of the fight got pretty philosophical because he said, “My research is intrinsically more important than yours because reality is physical, and the physical will ultimately explain biology and therefore explain the human brain.” And she said, “My research is more fundamental than yours because when you're doing physics, something is going on in your brain, which my biology will be able to understand.” And then they broke up. All you really need to know is that she was saying she's smarter than he is, and he was saying that he's smarter than she is—the emotional reality of what was going on.

For the most part, the show's writers don't have science backgrounds. What do you do to prepare?

We read science journalism, and we familiarize ourselves as much as we can with things that our characters would be concerned with. For example, I was listening to an NPR story about the neuroscience behind habit formation and habit extirpation. That would be an interesting thing to deal with. And we have a consultant who is an actual physics professor at U.C.L.A.—David Saltzberg—so we run stuff by him.

Is there any rhyme or reason to the animations of atoms that break up the scenes? I think I noticed lithium once.

I think I asked the same question when I showed up. I was like, “Hey, is that lithium?” And the answer I was given was, “Yes, it is lithium.” But it's not [there] because lithium is an antidepressant or anything like that.

This article was originally published with the title "Exploiting Physics for Serious Laughs."

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