MIT research in The Big Bang Theory

Neutrino research experiments featured on television

The Big Bang Theory is the flagship show of television nerdiness — being featured on the show means that, in some way, you reach over 15 million viewers. Physics professor Janet Conrad and many in her research group have been studying neutrinos with the Double Chooz experiment in France for a few years. Little did they expect to see their work on mainstream television last December.

On Dec. 8, 2011, an episode of The Big Bang Theory — the popular CBS sitcom about the daily life of brilliant yet socially awkward Caltech physicists — entitled “The Speckerman Recurrence” featured in its background some of the most recent results from the Double Chooz experiment.

Neutrinos, first hypothesized as unreactive particles in 1930s and experimentally detected in 1950s, can have three “flavors” — electron, muon, and tau. They were recently made famous when the OPERA experiment detected neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light, which was a major violation of the commonly accepted Einstein theory of relativity.

Neutrinos were proven in 2001 to “oscillate” between flavors when they travel through space. Conrad and her colleagues are studying the details of this quantum mechanical effect termed “neutrino oscillation.” They are using the Double Chooz experiment to find a particular parameter called theta13 (θ13) of neutrino oscillation, which can provide more insights into how neutrinos behave.

The Double Chooz experiment — a collaboration of over 160 scientists from eight different countries — takes advantage of electron anti-neutrinos generated as byproducts from the Chooz nuclear reactors in northern France. Lindley Winslow, a postdoc in Conrad’s group, said that they chose the site because it had two of the most powerful fission reactor cores in the world.

According to Winslow, their most recent experimental results showed a nonzero value of theta13 at about 1.6 sigmas (standard deviations). That means, even though the results are promising, the probability of the results being purely a statistical fluctuation is not negligible. The experiment will continue to run until 2017, and they hope to obtain a result with at least 3 sigmas.

David Saltzberg, a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at UCLA, works as the science consultant for The Big Bang Theory in his free time. He said in an email to The Tech that he was impressed when the Double Chooz experiment released their first results on Nov. 9 last year, and decided to include it in the show.

Winslow, who actively follows The Big Bang Theory, was surprised when she found drawings related to the Double Chooz experiment in the show’s background last December. She had just given a talk about the experiment using those particular drawings at UCLA on Nov. 30. Unfortunately, Saltzberg said he was away when Winslow’s talk occurred, and used similar drawings from the results released on Nov. 9 instead.

The Big Bang Theory also seemed to reference work done by Professor Alexander van Oudenaarden before he became a professor of physics and biology at MIT in an earlier episode aired in December 2009.

In this episode (Season 3 Episode 10), the main female character Penny was jealous that she couldn’t relate to her boyfriend Leonard about his work as a physicist. She then asked for help from another physicist character, Sheldon, who taught her to recite the following speech to Leonard later:

“Recently I’ve been thinking that given the parameters of your experiment, the transport of electrons through the apertures of the nano-fabricated metal rings is qualitatively no different from the experiment already conducted in the Netherlands. Their observed phase shift in the diffusing electrons inside the metal ring already conclusively demonstrated the electric analog of the Aharonov-Bohm quantum interference effect.”

In his year at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, Oudenaarden had done an experiment with a very similar description. His work was published in a 1998 issue of Nature, titled “Magneto-electric Aharonov-Bohm effect in metal rings.”

Oudenaarden, who doesn’t watch The Big Bang Theory, found out about the episode when a former MIT student emailed him last spring. He felt “honored” that the show featured something related to his paper, but said “they probably selected it because the title is so nice, that it’s got so many complicated words in it.”

Oudenaarden said that their experiment not only reaffirmed theory, but since the electrons in the experiment are quantum mechanically coherent over the distance of 1 micron — which is very big for quantum mechanical effects — it also inspired ideas for devices to make quantum computers.