On Thursday nights, 10 million people are thinking about physics. That’s the weekly viewership for The Big Bang Theory, the CBS sitcom about a theoretical physicist, an experimental physicist, an engineer, and an astronomer. They hang out together, search for love, fight off rival scientists for grants, and squabble over who gets to visit the Large Hadron Collider on the university’s dime.
Eric Kaplan, who attended graduate school at Columbia University and UC Berkeley to study philosophy, is a writer and co-executive producer for the show. He spoke to Pop Omnivore’s Jane J. Lee at the February meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and talked about what it was like to write for a series that doesn’t shy away from scientific jargon. A veteran comedy writer, Kaplan has also written for the “Late Show with David Letterman,” “Futurama,” and “Malcolm in the Middle.”
What attracted you to The Big Bang Theory?
I thought that my experience working in academia would be helpful. I knew people like [the characters on the show] and I was a little like that, and the idea of making jokes about how people think about the world versus how they act is sympatico to me.
Do you find yourself drawing on your experiences in academia to infuse the characters?
Yeah. I was just out of college and I was talking to a woman who said, well, you dress weird on purpose to send a message. And I said, I don’t think that that’s true. I’m concerned about things more than how I dress, and that causes me to dress in this way, but I’m not doing it to send the message that I don’t care.
In fact, I don’t care, and you correctly figured that out. But I was not presenting myself as someone who doesn’t care.
And I thought that was an interesting exchange between the two of us—a sort of mutual miscomprehension. Because what I know from working in academia is that there [are] people who genuinely care about stuff more than the kind of social games that we play.
The fact that there are people who kind of never get with the program, I find funny and interesting and it’s something I have a lot of experience in.
When you need to decide what these characters are working on in their professional lives, do you say to the show’s science advisers: Can you fill in the science?
Often we do it like that. Often we’ll say, “Sheldon and Kripke have to work together on a project and they don’t like each other, what is a project that they could conceivably both be working on?”
And David Saltzberg, [professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA] who is [the show’s] science adviser, will suggest some possibilities.
Sometimes we’ll come across something and think that it’s cool. Like Chuck [Lorre, one of the creators of the show,] came across the idea that if people lived long enough, people alive today would have a chance of getting to the singularity—[a time in the future where human-machine interfaces augment our intelligence and natural abilities]—and living forever.
So he came across that idea and was like, “let’s do an episode where Sheldon is worked up about that.”
How much do you try to understand about the science that’s getting incorporated into these episodes?
A little. I have a philosophy of science background, so I’m interested in, at a general level, what’s going on in physics. I’m not good enough at math to read an original paper in this field, but I’m interested to know [about] the basic idea.
Is there anything you’ve learned, science-wise, while working on the show that’s stuck with you?
I learned that we have neurons in our stomachs … I think that’s interesting, sort of disgusting. There’s something called the gut brain, and it processes information. So we do some thinking, using our guts.
Do you know why the creators focused the show on physicists rather than, say, geologists?
I think physics may be one of the sexier [sciences]. Supposedly the smartest people are in theoretical physics—Einstein and Stephen Hawking, these charismatic figures are in theoretical physics. I don’t know if there is a geologist that captures people’s imagination in the same way.
Physicists, they invented the atomic bomb, and that’s a big deal—[it] could destroy humanity, so that’s interesting. And they know where the universe came from and that’s interesting. And they know what things are made of.
There’s a sense in which physics is the root science, if you believe in a strong reductionist program, and you think that psychology is ultimately biology and biology is ultimately chemistry and chemistry is ultimately physics, so everything is physics.
So it’s like the most egotistical science, which is not to say physicists are the most egotistical scientists, but it’s kind of the science that has the most massive ambitions.
You’ve had scientists guest-star on the show—is there one that you really want or haven’t been able to get yet?
Is Freeman Dyson still alive? Well, I want him. Freeman Dyson would be pretty cool … or E.O. Wilson would be neat.
Has working on this show changed your view of science?
Yeah, I suppose I’ve gotten a more realistic sense of the amount of politics there is, within scientific departments and within universities. The kind of background level annoyance and frustration and humiliation that comes with any job is present just as much in the job of scientists.
Is it hard for you or for new writers to write for the show because there’s so much jargon?
No, no, that’s not what’s hard. If I was to write a show about cowboys—I’m not a cowboy and I don’t know any cowboys—what would be hard for me wouldn’t be the jargon but how they look at life.
I can look on Wikipedia in two minutes and I can find out the name of all the parts of a saddle. That’s information [that] is readily available.
What would be hard [would be knowing if cowboys] miss their cows at the end of the cattle drive. How do they relate to the cows? For a cowboy, are the cows just money and they don’t care? Do they feel affection, do they feel lonely, are they people who feel uncomfortable around other people and are happy to be out under the stars?
So that would be the imaginative challenge of writing a show about cowboys. And that’s the same thing with writing a show about scientists.
—Jane J. Lee