NASA Has a Ball on Set of TV's 'Big Bang Theory'

The NASA Team on the set of “The Big Bang Theory” holding the WMAP ball. From left to right: Sara Mitchell, Sarah Eyermann, Maggie Masetti.
The NASA Team on the set of “The Big Bang Theory” holding the WMAP ball. From left to right: Sara Mitchell, Sarah Eyermann, Maggie Masetti. (Image credit: NASA)

A NASA team recently dropped by theset of "The BigBang Theory," a popular CBS sitcom about geeky astrophysicists. TheNASAreps weren't checking up on the show's scientific accuracy ? they justwantedto see their beach ball.

The beach ball provided by the spaceagency appears prominentlyon the set of "The Big Bang Theory," sitting on a bookshelf in theapartment of Leonard and Sheldon, two physicists on the show. [Photoof NASA's'Big Bang Theory' beach ball]

NASA had developed the ball as aneducational tool. It'sadorned with data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP),whichmeasures the temperature of the radiation left over from theBig Bang ? the explosive event that formed the universe. Thedata from WMAPcreated a map of these temperature fluctuations over the entire sky,and thatmap is now covering the globe of the beach ball. 

"Imagine yourself at the center ofthis ball, lookingin all directions," said the ball's designer, Britt Griswold, agraphicsspecialist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md."Whatyou are seeing is the first visible light in the universe. It has beenstretched by the very fabric of space/time as the universe has expandedso itnow is microwave light, invisible to our eyes ? but not WMAP'stelescopes."

Getting to the set

In August, public-outreach folks atGoddard started workingon a story about the use of the beach ball as a teaching tool. Theyasked aproducer of "TheBigBang Theory" for a photo of the ball on the show's set, andhe invitedthem to come take the picture themselves.

A few weeks later, the NASA teamdropped by the set in LosAngeles. Waiting for them on the couch ? in the spot where thecharacter Sheldonalways sits ? was the WMAP beach ball.

The set was also packed with otherastro-nerd paraphernalia:old scientific instruments, bookshelves full of science tomes, and awhiteboardcovered in scribbled equations and diagrams.

The show's science adviser, UCLAphysicist David Saltzberg,makes sure that the whiteboards aren't covered with faux-scientificgobbledygook, NASA officials said. (When the NASA crew was on set, thewhiteboards were an homage to the 1985 movie "Real Genius" and itsexcimer lasers.)

Parting gifts

The NASA team enjoyed going behindthe scenes of "TheBig Bang Theory" and seeing how a show about fictional scientists isputtogether, officials of the space agency said.

As a thank you, the NASA reps broughtwith them a variety ofgoodies, including a scale model of the JamesWebb Space Telescope, currently under development to become apowerfulsuccessor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Also among the gifts was a specialbeach ball containing thelatest WMAP data ? and the signature of astrophysicist John Mather,who, with fellowscientist George Smoot, won the Nobel Prize for their work on thisfirst lightin the universe and its relationship to the Big Bang.

The sitcom showed its appreciation byshowing these gifts onthe air. In the Nov. 4 episode, the Webb telescope model, plus somestickers,magnets and a poster, decorate the apartment of astrophysicistcharacter RajeshKoothrappali.

The beach ball, for its part, stillrests on the shelfbehind Leonard and Sheldon's couch.

The TV comedy "Big BangTheory" airs Thursdayson CBS at 8:00-8:31p.m.ET/PT. Check locallistings.

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