Science of the Big Bang Theory

TV show the Big Bang Theory centres around the lives of scientists, but what science are they actually doing?
16 June 2015


Dave Zobel is a science humourist and author from LA. Here he tells us about his latest book...

Dave - You must take a deep breath to say the entire title of the book Chris. It is, "The Science of TV's The Big Bang Theory: Explanations Even Penny Would Understand."The Science of The Big Bang Theory

Chris - So go on, explain the motivation behind doing this then.

Dave - Well, the TV show, The Big Bang Theory is enormously popular and there's quite a lot of talk about science on that show. The main characters are all scientists of various types and they occasionally will talk about either their work or their interests or just something they have read recently. They never really explain the science and that's appropriate because it's a sitcom. It's not a TV show that is purporting to teach you anything. It's just trying to give you a good time. But all of the science they talk about is legitimate. It's all vetted actually by a real-life professor of astrophysics at UCLA named David Saltzberg. He makes sure that it's all real subjects. There are no dilithium crystals, there are no infinite improbability drives or sonic screwdrivers. I thought it would be fun to write a little book explaining some of those science references and just talking about, you know when the character says, "I was using a laser." What does it mean to use a laser, when he talks about his noise cancelling headphones? Well, how do noise cancelling headphones work? So, I put together what I thought would be a little book. It ended up being almost 400 pages and I had to leave quite a lot out.

Chris - Give us a sort of taster then. When you say you've taken on some of these questions and explained them, what sort of treatment have you given them?

Dave - Well for example, let's take the example of the noise cancelling headphones which come up a couple of times on the show. In general, they are used by characters in order to drown out the sounds of their roommates, making noises with other people and I will leave the rest of that to your imagination. So, I'd start with a quote from one of the characters, just a scrap of dialogue mentioning the noise cancelling headphones and then I lead in from that to, how do noise cancelling headphones work, what is actually going on, the different types of noise cancelling headphones and the way they are engineered. And I close with a question that I'm sure your listeners would be interested to ponder which is that, if a tree falls in a forest and there's no one there and it lands on a pair of noise cancelling headphones, does it make a noise?

Chris - Answer it for me then. Does it?

Dave - Did you hear me? I just answered it.

Chris - Very good. How has it been received so far?

Dave - It is flying off the shelves at Caltech. Of course, that's earthquake country so there may be another explanation for that. But there's quite a lot about Caltech in the book and that's the California Institute of Technology where these characters work. It is a real institute in Pasadena near Los Angeles and I cover quite a lot of the research that's really going on at the real Caltech.


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