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Interview with Dr. David Saltzberg

📷 Warner Bros

Journalist: Anna Yang

Interviewer: Welcome to SciSection! My name is Anna and I’m a journalist for the SciSection radio show broadcasted on CFMU 93.3 FM radio station. We are here today with Dr. David Saltzberg, a professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA and a science advisor for shows such as The Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon. Thank you for taking the time to meet with me, Dr. Saltzberg.

Dr. Saltzberg: Thank you for having me, this should be fun.

Interviewer: To begin, could you give us an overview of your career so far?

Dr. Saltzberg: Oh, so I am a particle physicist, when I’m not doing this Hollywood stuff. I do experiments; I started when I was a student doing experiments on an atom smasher known as the Tevatron which was located at Fermilab outside of Chicago. Our particular experiment, for those that know, was called CDF, it’s now in the history books, but that was back when the top quark was discovered, the last quark. At the time it was the highest energy atom smasher, time moves on, and now I work on the Large Hadron Collider, which people may have heard of, it’s even bigger, and it’s the collider that produced the Higgs Boson back in 2012, and we’re off studying its properties now.

Interviewer: Yeah, that sounds wonderful. So could you tell me a bit more about some of the research that you’re currently working on?

Dr. Saltzberg: So, as I said we had discovered the Higgs Boson, at the Large Hadron Collider. My particular experiment is called CMS, the compact muon solenoid. It’s enormous, which is probably why it’s called “compact.” We’ve taken a lot of good data, we’ve made some discoveries, but now in order to make that next step the beams are going to be far more intense. And the event rates are going to be much higher, and the detectors as we built them wouldn’t work anymore, now that we’re bringing in far more intense beams in the next few years, they won’t be adequate. So members of my group in collaboration with other universities are building new detectors that can detect particles called muons, that indicate the decay of a particle, and they’re much finer spatial resolution, they can work much faster, and we’re building them now, we’re designing them now, and we’ll be installing them in about four or five years for this new data.

Interviewer: That sounds amazing. Could you tell me what a typical work day would look like for you as a particle physicist?

Dr. Saltzberg: What is a typical work day for me as a particle physicist? Well nowadays, unfortunately, since I collaborate with Europe, I am often waking up at six or seven in the morning to be in a meeting. And to be on a phone call at six in the morning discussing fine details of electronics sounds like fun, and it’s about as fun as it sounds. So typically I wake up in the morning and many days take meetings with Europe. In the normal times I would go to the office after that and work with students and postdocs on the design work that they’re doing or we already have existing data, we have a graduate student who’s analyzing the data, looking for a very massive new particle, and it would decay into Higgs bosons. So, whereas eight years ago we were trying to discover the Higgs boson, now we’re using it as a tool of a particle that we know about, which other particles would decay into.

Interviewer: Yeah, that’s crazy, how much we’ve advanced over the last few years. So, in addition to being a professor and particle physicist, you’re also a science advisor for a number of shows including The Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon. So how did you initially get into the entertainment industry?

Dr. Saltzberg: Well, the amazing thing was I never planned on getting involved in Hollywood and entertainment. I moved here to UCLA because I really liked the department and the things we were doing, and I lived here in Los Angeles. When you live in Los Angeles, and you go out to a party or with friends, you often meet many many people that work in show business, and I was kind of this odd duck who didn’t. And that’s the way it was, for a long time, and just by chance, through a friend of a friend of a friend, who knew the producers that were putting together this show with some science dialogue, they wanted to run it past a physicist. And since my friend knew that I lived here in LA, he asked if I would help out his friend. And so I did that, and you know, twelve years later we had done 279 episodes and were the number one comedy. It kind of surprised me, I never expected it. And we continue now with the show, as you mentioned, Young Sheldon, for more years.

Interviewer: Yeah, so as you mentioned you’ve been doing this for many years, could you walk me through the typical process of consulting for these shows and for putting all of this science into the scripts?

Dr. Saltzberg: What’s wonderful about working with this set of writers and the production is they really want to get the science right. I’m not there to be the science police, they just really want to know, and they want to make it accurate. And I think that helps the actors sell the reality of what they’re doing, and I think it helps people who are watching believe in what’s happening. And so sometimes it’ll be just a thought, you know, “hey, what kind of science-y thing might they be doing on the roof?” And that’s what I want to stress, is that they have the story put together. They’re on the roof, they know who’s there, they know what they’re doing, but they have a science-sized hole about what exactly they’re doing. And so we very rarely, or almost never, if ever, started with “this is a cool science topic, let’s build a story around it.” The writers built a story about boyfriends and girlfriends, or friends, or trouble, very universal stories, and the specificity of it, the fact that these were scientists, is what was used to flesh it out. But the underlying story was driven by human stories. And so then after that, I would get scripts, and there might just be a wrong word, you know, they don’t care which way it is but it’s correct if it’s written one way and incorrect if written in another, and we make those changes. And then the script will go into production, there’d be a six day cycle where the actual episode is produced, and I would hear from set decorators, and maybe sometimes wardrobe, the properties department, which is everything the actors hold and touch, about putting things together if it was needed. Not every episode did, although every episode on The Big Bang Theory had whiteboards. And so there was always something fresh on the whiteboards. Young Sheldon, there’s not as many scientists, there’s young Sheldon himself, he befriended an older physics professor, Dr. Sturgis, and so there’s fewer of them, there’s not as many opportunities to fill in science, but we still do, and we still keep it accurate, and try to keep it accurate in that case for what was happening around 1990.

Interviewer: And speaking of the whiteboards in The Big Bang Theory; where exactly did you come up with all of the things to put on those?

Dr. Saltzberg: Well, in the end it was three whiteboards per episode, times 279 episodes, so I can’t say that every single whiteboard was profound. But if the episodes did have the characters talking about something, and it was something they could have been talking about before the show started, then that would often drive me to what’s put on the whiteboards. It wouldn’t make sense if a topic came up in conversation that they had not been talking about before — well why would that be on the whiteboard? Because clearly that was before minute one of the episode. So if they had been thinking about it, fine. So that helped on some of the episodes. Other times, something was happening in the news, science news, and it would be very conceivable that they would be talking about that. And so we used the whiteboards, we just didn’t see them, so that would often wind up being on the boards. Other times, you know, we know that Sheldon and Leonard were just working on things, and so there’d just be some stuff on the boards. Wouldn’t be related to what’s happening now or in the episode, it’s just the everyday life of what would be on a whiteboard. When a famous physicist died, there might be a tribute to him on the boards because they would have been talking about him or her. But there was never anything too jokey, or never anything jokey. I find that when I go to a movie and see something on the whiteboards, it was like “oh that’s a joke, they wrote out a word in greek letters or something,” like that would never really be on the whiteboard. I find that distracting and takes me out of the story, so we never did anything like that.

Interviewer: And what has been your personal favourite part of being a science advisor for these shows?

Dr. Saltzberg: Well, I love the people in this business.

Dr. Saltzberg: You know, as scientists we’re used to dealing with creative-driven people who really know their stuff, right. And it turns out that show business is filled with the same kind of people.

Dr. Saltzberg: Who’d been doing it for decades, who really care, work very hard, are very creative, they absolutely know what they’re doing, it’s just as complex and as much history behind it as quantum field theory. So to just jump in and think you can do it is not an obvious thing. There’s a lot going on that makes it work. And the people are just wonderful to talk to, and brilliant and funny and interesting, among the writers and the actors and the production crew, really everyone was super fantastic to talk to. And because during the tapings I wasn’t so busy, I got to talk to everyone, which was a lot of fun.

Interviewer: And we’re almost at the end of the interview, I just have one last question: among all of the Big Bang Theory characters, who is your personal favourite?

Dr. Saltzberg: You know, everyone asks me that, and if I picked one then I would have all the others of my friends, the actors, against me! I’d say that I find aspects of all of them in my own personality, and sometimes I’ll even find myself saying something they said. And I think that’s not an accident. As explained to me by one of the writers, if you’re reading a novel, you can hear the inner dialogue of someone, about what they’re thinking. But when you’re watching a play or watching television, which is like a play, if they don’t say it, you don’t hear it. And so I think a lot of what happens, and what I’ve been told a lot of what happens is a lot of the different poles of a character that would be in an individual are now spread among the characters so they can talk about it. And these are familiar thoughts and familiar ideas, that would normally only be inside your own head.

Interviewer: Yeah, that’s fascinating. So that does bring us to the end of the interview, Dr. Saltzberg, thank you again for joining me today. And for everyone listening, that’s it for this week of SciSection! Make sure to check out our podcast available on global platforms for all of our latest interviews.


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