The Science of the Big Bang

15-Nov-10 12:20 PM by
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Big Bang Theory a show about a bunch of geeks, is not shy in parading scientific celebrities before the camera. Steve Wozniak, Wil Wheaton, and Neil deGrasse Tyson have all appeared on the show, matching the stars' fictional genius with authentic brilliance.

But there's just as much intelligence behind the camera, too. While Leonard and Sheldon debate over quantum physics and incomprehensible calculations, David Saltzberg is making sure the math checks out.

As detailed online at Scientific American, this UCLA physicist isn't writing BBT scripts but is double-checking the theories and equations discussed and displayed on the set. Since the show likely attracts a high caliber of viewer, it's sensible to ensure the crew doesn't get risk their credibility by getting caught passing off unbalanced equations. Even Star Trek, with a similarly brainy crowd, had its science and continuity checkers — though its futuristic setting allowed them to get away with more fantastic postulations. When asked how the Heisenberg compensators worked, Star Trek technical expert Michael Okuda famously replied, "It works very well, thank you,"

What I found most interesting in the SciAm piece was this passage:

There are parallels between Saltzberg's day job and his side job, he says, adding that "comedy is an experimental science." The show is taped in front of a live studio audience. If the audience doesn't respond to a laugh line, the writers immediately rework the script to make it work.

I knew the show to not use a laugh track, but I didn't realize that live shows could be so fluid in their scripts. To redo a line or scene while changing more than the delivery sounds more akin to improv, a talent very different from traditional acting.

But in the end, it's worth it — because is there any subject funnier than physics?

It All Started with a Big Bang

25-Jan-10 1:45 PM by
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I've now had a month to play with and evaluate my Christmas bounties and have come to a conclusion: the thought and care that went into my handmade Pac-Man scarf puts it on top, but the first two seasons of Big Bang Theory on DVD made for a close match.

True to the conjecture that "the geek shall inherit the Earth", we finally seem to be in an era where it's hip to be a geek. The world runs on the Internet and is beholden to those who have mastered it, while the success of movies like Batman and TV shows such as Battlestar Galactica are evidence of the consumer power of the geek demographic.

Big Bang TheoryBig Bang Theory puts those geeks in the spotlight with two cohabitating physicists, Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons). Together with co-workers Howard (Simon Helberg of Dr. Horrible) and Raj (Kunal Nayyar), they play Halo and Dungeons & Dragons, attend Star Trek conventions and costume contests, and postulate about quantum mechanics and string theory. When Penny (Kaley Cuoco), a cute Cheesecake Factory waitress, moves in next door, Leonard tries to get her attention without abandoning his esoteric lifestyle. Hilarity ensues.

Although the show does play to some stereotypes, it does so respectfully. Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj are respected by their peers and are successful in and fulfilled by their careers and hobbies. The humor arises not from lampooning what it means to be a geek as much as it does by highlighting the culture clash that occurs when geeks try to interact with the rest of society. Besides, how could the show poke fun at geeks when the geeks in the audience can empathize with so many of the jokes? This is a show about laughing with, not at, the heroes.

Although adorable and well-intentioned Leonard is ostensibly the star of the show, the scenes are often stolen by Sheldon, who exaggerates the geek archetype by proving himself completely devoid of emotion. Imagine a creature as logical as Spock but with a complete unawareness of the existence of other organisms' emotions or how to be sensitive to them. Such extreme snarkiness is unattractive, but it makes Sheldon's occasional humanity all the more surprising.

Take this scene from the second season's Christmas episode. Sheldon, not knowing what price range his gift from Penny will fall under, has prepared several gifts to give her based on the value of what he receives. Once he has received and evaluated her gift, he intends to sneak away to choose the appropriate reciprocation.

Would any of us have reacted any differently? (The fact that you're reading Showbits in the first place suggests "no".)

From the opening number performed and sung by Barenaked Ladies to the epilogue, each episode is a riot of intelligent, witty humor. If you liked the superior stylings of Frasier, you'll like Big Bang Theory. My thanks to those who took a chance on introducing me to this series for Christmas.