Q&A: Big Bang Theory

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For most of the interviews we do, sources will be disappointed by what comes out. And we journalist are mostly okay with this because those are the rules of the game. But every so often a person gets a little robbed. And I, the journalist, feel like a crook. The following is a Q&A I did for Scientific American with Eric Kaplan, writer and producer of Big Bang Theory on CBS. It wasn’t SciAm’s fault they only had space for a snippet of this conversation – they told me as much beforehand. How was I to know he was so surprisingly thoughtful and not-surprisingly funny? So here it is, unabridged, for the dedicated LWON readers.

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Eric Kaplan says that, just like you can’t write a western without understanding cattle, you can’t write a show about scientists without understanding science. Over his career in television, writing for big names like Futurama and personal projects like cult favorite Zombie College, he’s used his love of learning for smart, witty dialogue. Today he’s an executive producer of The Big Bang Theory – a sitcom like Friends, but with science nerds. Its cast includes a microbiologist, three physicists, an engineer, and a neuroscientist and is packed with obscure science references. Kaplan himself is passionate about philosophy and veers the conversation to Friedrich Nietzsche and Gottlob Frege whenever he can and is even publishing a book (November of this year) for the layman about paradoxes. For him, science is important but the heart of his work is the emotional reality of the characters.

 

Is science education an important part of the show?

It bears a family resemblance to science education. What we try to do is try to make people feel that scientists are real people and that science is something that real people, like themselves, could do. So at that sense, teaching people something about the activity of science and by the way might be teaching them about science. 

You also have autotrophs in your theme song and you mention Santiago Ramon y Cajal, which are obscure references.

Yeah but I think we explained who he was. I’d personally never heard of Ramon Cajal until we came across that.

Do you read a lot?

I read Wikipedia more than I watch television or read novels.

Cop dramas need to be accurate to police procedures and criminal psychology. What does your staff 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.

The second thing is we have an actual consultant who is a physics professor at UCLA – David Saltzberg – and we run stuff by him. I don’t want to give away an episode – but we did an episode that involved a character wanting to know something and also wanting to not know something. So we kind of went back and forth with David Saltzberg – and we figured out an acceptable way of saying it was a macroscopic version of the principle of quantum superposition.

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.’ It’s not because lithium is an antidepressant or anything like that.

Do you ever get phone calls from physicists correcting or suggesting new ideas to you?

No, sometimes they like to be on the show. We’ll have physicists in the background. We had George Smoot and Lisa Randall. Andre Geim came to visit and Steven Hawking was on the show.

It seems like some episodes are inspired by character development while others are occasionally inspired by science.

We try not to make too strong a dualism between the two of them because our characters are people who care passionately about science. I was very interested at the time of the discovery of the Higgs Boson. When I did the Wikipedia search on what the Higgs Boson I found the Higgs field had been discovered by five or six people. But somehow Higgs had gotten five of their names off of it and it became Higgs Boson. So that became an interesting thing as to how our character Sheldon – who is a very vain physicist – would be worried about how he could make sure that he would get the fame for his discovery and that no one else would.

How do you balance nerdy science stuff with character development? Does the office have any rule of thumb for when you’ve taken the science too far?

It’s a character-based comedy. And these characters are passionately interested in science. We’re supposed to tell stories that will entertain and bring about compassion and do all the good things that stories do. But it so happens that to tell our stories, they’re about people who do science. Imagine you’re writing a western, how much you have to know about ranching and cows and horse riding – a fair amount. If you’re going to do a very horse-centric episode, you better learn more. And one of the things you might have to be careful about if you’re writing a western and you don’t know anything about ranching is that you’re just going to kind of be putting in crappy things that you saw in other movies and you’ll just be using cliches and not actually thinking. So we want to know enough about science that we could actually have something fresh and original and true.

Can you give me an example of this?

We had a fight. It was a fight between Sheldon, 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 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 your brain which my biology will be able to understand.” And then they broke up. And they reference [philosopher Gottlob] Frege, which I think may be the first time that anyone has mentioned Frege in American sitcom since, you know, early seasons of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. All you really need to know is that she’s saying she’s smarter than he is and he’s saying that he’s smarter than she is – the emotional reality of what’s going on.

You still keep up on philosophy, it sounds like.

I do. In fact, I’m reading a book right now called “All or Nothing: Systematicity, Transcendental Arguments, and German Idealism.” And it’s pretty interesting because one of the things I find interesting about getting to know a subject is when you learn that everything you know about it, is wrong. For example, I remember there was some kind of a system in ancient China where all they said in our textbooks was that it was not feudalism. It has always kind of fascinated me because most things are not feudalism. I’m not feudalism, you’re not feudalism …

I think you’ve said that people learn more about science from BBT than the 50 top-selling science books combined. Leaving aside the arbitrary number, what makes you think that’s true? 

We definitely reach a wider audience. We have about 20 million viewers. What is the sales of the best selling science book? I don’t know.

If you’re lucky, you get a couple hundred thousand.

But here’s the thing – what if each person who reads the book, learns a hundred times more science than they do from watching our show. Then it would be two hundred million units of science learning going on from the book and only twenty million units of science learning from our show. So I think you have to figure out some way to quantify how much someone learns about science – maybe by giving them a test before they watch our show and after they watch our show. I have no idea if they’d do better, they might even do worse for all I know.

You seem to be attracted the idea of finding a sense of humanity beneath cold or strange exteriors. Nerds and zombies kind of have that in common.

[Long pause] I guess you’re right. You know sometimes in our dealings with other people, we think of them as sources of competition or as sources that we can exploit. I’m in favor of viewing humans from a humanistic standpoint. So yeah, that’s something that motivates me.

So why do you like such difficult characters to humanize?

We all live close together and we’re all kind of knocking into each other a lot and there’s a lot of pressure to be likeable. I personally find it very exhausting and I would like to know that even if you don’t work so hard to be likeable, you can still be loved. So one of the things I guess I think about doing is to say ‘Well, even if we all give ourselves a break and stop trying to pretend to be so goddamn likeable, we’re still loveable.’ And that’s a moral of my work and its something that I care about.

Art Credit: Tony Millionaire

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