S04E02: The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification

To quote Sheldon from tonight’s episode,  “This is a photograph of the 1911 Solvay Conference on the theory of radiation and quanta:”

Members of the first Solvay Conference, in 1911. Left-to right: Standing: Robert Goldschmidt, Max Planck, Heinrich Rubens, Arnold Sommerfeld, Frederick Lindemann, Maurice de Broglie, Martin Knudsen, Fritz Hasenöhrl, Georges Hostelet, Edouard Herzen, James Hopwood Jeans, Ernest Rutherford, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, Albert Einstein, Paul Langevin. Seated: Walther Nernst, Marcel Brillouin, Ernest Solvay, Hendrik Lorentz, Emil Warburg, Jean-Baptiste Perrin (reading), Wilhelm Wien (upright), Marie Curie, Henri Poincaré.

Unlike Sheldon, I have not Photoshopped anything onto it.   That’s not to say the above photo isn’t doctored, however.  See the fellow with the gray beard sitting at the table?   That’s Ernest Solvay, the Belgian Industrialist who sponsored the conference.  He couldn’t be present for the photo, so his head was pasted over that of a stand-in.  I heard they did it with Photoshop running on a Windows 11 laptop.

Solvay made his fortune by inventing a manufacturing process for sodium carbonate, a process used to this day.   In the Solvay method, seawater was mixed with limestone to produce soda ash,  the common name for sodium carbonate.  Among its many uses, soda ash “softens” water; it takes up the magnesium and calcium found in “hard water” that would otherwise limit the washing action of detergent.    Soda ash is used to reduce the acidity of food without using harsher chemicals,  such as lye.   In an important industrial process,  soda ash  is used to coat raw pretzels, which gives them their nice brown skin upon cooking.

Solvay dedicated much of his fortune to philanthropy, including seminal meetings among the leading luminaries of physics.   Such was the origin of the first of these, the 1911 Solvay Conference.

So what happened at the Solvay Conference?  I’ve consulted my go-to source on particle-physics history, the book Inward Bound, by Abraham Pais.  Setting the stage for the conference, Ernest Rutherford, had just completed his famous experiments indicating that an atom has a dense central nucleus surrounded by electrons located thousands of times farther away than the radius of the nucleus.   In his lab, electrically charged alpha particles scattered backwards from a gold foil target, indicating they were encountering a dense region of electric charge.

Rutherford's alpha particles could scatter backwards from a gold atom. This led him to realize there had to be an atomic nucleus.

But Rutherford didn’t say a word about it at Solvay 1911.  Meanwhile Marie Curie, also present, was headed down a different path to the same discovery.  She realized the radioactive nature of elements had nothing to do with their chemical properties such as reactivity, thermal conductivity,  etc.  She was spot on:

Radioactive phenomena form a world apart, without any connection with the preceding phenomena.  It seems therefore that radioactive phenomena originate from a deeper region of the atom, a region inaccessible to our means of influence and probably also to our means of observation, except at the moment of atomic explosions.  -Marie Curie

Rutherford was in the audience, having already realized that his alpha particle scattering experiments showed exactly this.  But he said nothing.

And yet to this day Rutherford is credited with the discovery of the atomic nucleus.  As well he should be, since he designed and interpreted the experiments that proved it true.  Of course Marie Curie did wonderful other experiments in her own right, elucidating the nature of radiactivity.  Both won their own Nobel prizes.

Tonight’s whiteboards

Here’s a little Inside-Hollywood information.  The boards Sheldon used tonight were not set dressing; they were a prop.   Most weeks, I send the material for the whiteboards to the set-dressing department.   They take care of furniture, various decorations on the set–and for our show–the white boards.  But tonight was special.  Sheldon touched a board.   Anything an actor touches automatically becomes the purview of a different department–the properties department.  So these particular boards were props.

If you take a closer look at these props, you will see he has Bayes’ theorem up there.  Perhaps that’s because since he is studying the meaning of some genetic tests.  Here’s a question about medical tests, showing you must know Bayes’ theorem to understand what yours mean.  Suppose you take a blood test for a disease that only has a small chance of error:  Say  99% of the time the test identifies the disease when one is present.  But also rarely, say 5% of the time, it will say you have the disease when you don’t.  Question:  Your test comes back positive; what is the probability that you have the disease?

Answer: Not enough information.

You still need to know the probability that the disease occurs in your population and apply Bayes’ theorem, the theorem on the board.  It is straightforward to see.  If we test you for smallpox with such a test, a disease nobody on Earth has, then 1 time in twenty (5%)  you will be positive for smallpox, even though we know you don’t have the disease.   Now if only 0.5% of the population has the disease and you test positive, then there is still over a 90% chance you don’t have the disease.  This is  why your doctor does not give you the tests that would have found problems early…it would cost too much in all those who were identified as false positives.   From your insurance company’s point of view, you aren’t worth it.

As for the family tree on the board, that is official genetic counselor notation.   My sister Linda just graduated with a master’s degree in genetic counseling and she gave me all the symbols to use, including that Sheldon has a fraternal (“dizygotic”) twin, Missy.   So for this episode , your consultant consulted  a consultant.

(Tonight’s blog edited by my friend Karen Joyce, USAP)

14 Responses to “S04E02: The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification”

  1. Phil Plait Says:

    We DVRed tonight’s episode, and I paused it at the beginning to wait for my wife and daughter. I looked over the board, and started laughing right away! Before we even watched, I was explaining what TOE, GUT, and the Singularity were to my daughter. I guessed correctly about the red line… and I assume that the Mars symbol meant that a line was cut about how Sheldon would eventually emigrate.🙂

    Really good stuff tonight. Congrats!

    • David Saltzberg Says:

      We are honored to have a comment from the **Bad Astronomer** himself! You are right about the Mars symbol, but I don’t think it was ever in the script. I think it was just my own propaganda agitating for a Mars base.

      Everyone should check out Phil’s new show, Bad Universe on the Discovery Channel.

  2. The Big Bang Theory Says:

    I loved the ending with Shelbot and Penny singing “Soft Kitty”. FANTASTIC!

  3. Randal L. Schwartz Says:

    I was on the cruise ship where Woz met his future wife Janet. It’s sad that Janet didn’t get a line… I presume that was some sort of SAG restriction.🙂 At least she got to shrug.

  4. Yves Says:

    Was the Shelbot inspired by this: http://www.intouchhealth.com/products_rp-7_robots.html

  5. Mikes Says:

    Last season I saw some commentators on this blog that were worried that the show was losing its roots and departing too much from science. Now, I’m not going to imply causation here, but it really seems like the producers have picked up on this. The last episodes have been absolutely delightful. If this continues through the season I’m probably going to have a nerdvanah😀

  6. Martin Says:

    Is Sheldon’s photoshopped version available? A laptop and Rutherford’s hat were easily identifiable. Sheldon and Missy having a brother? I must have missed that.

  7. How does Acoustic Guitar differ from Electric Guitar? Says:

    […] S04E02: The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification « The Big Blog Theory […]

  8. Patrick J Lueck Says:

    Just found your blog. GREAT!! And…it seems that the wild and wooly junk science theorists aren’t posting in great numbers, like some science blogs.

    For your readers who want more information on Baye’s Theorem and some insight into other knotty statistical problems, I recommend Leonard Mlodinow’s book: “The Drunkard’s Walk.” A primer on statistics and chaos…it is very, very accessible to the science/math layman.

    I will endeavor to watch “The Big Bank Theory” more often!!

    Pat Lueck

  9. Tradução: “S04E02: The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification (A Amplificação dos Vegetais Crucíferos)” « The Big Blog Theory (em Português!) Says:

    […] feita por Hitomi a partir de texto extraído de The Big Blog Theory, de autoria de David Saltzberg, originalmente publicado em 30 de Setembro de […]

  10. Chris Hennick Says:

    Anyone know where I can find projected actuarial tables that factor in diet and lifestyle? I’m a bit younger than Sheldon, so I figure I may have a chance even without cruciferous vegetables.

  11. A Rivero Says:

    “Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification” sounds as some alchemical blob from I. Newton.

  12. bzcjfklee@gmail.com Says:

    In a perfect world, I’d be vegan and nothing I ate/consumed/used would come from animal sources.

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