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Ken Bloom | USLHC | USA

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Behind the scenes of our “Big Bang Theory” post

Well, that was fun!

At 8 PM ET on February 5, 2015, Quantum Diaries ran a post that was tied to “The Troll Manifestation”, an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” (TBBT) that was being aired at exactly that time.  This was generated in partnership with the show’s writers, staff and advisers. What happens when you couple a niche-interest website to one of the most popular TV shows in the United States? The QD bloggers and support staff had a great time getting ready for this synergistic event and tracking what happened next.  Here’s the story behind the story.

I’ve mentioned previously, in my largely unheralded essay about the coffee culture at CERN, that I have known David Saltzberg, UCLA faculty member and science adviser to TBBT, for a very long time, since we were both students in the CDF group at The University of Chicago.  On January 14, David contacted me (and fellow QD blogger Michael DuVernois) to say that Quantum Diaries was going to be mentioned in an episode of the show that was going to be taped in the coming week.  David wanted to know if I could sign a release form allowing them to use the name of the blog.

I couldn’t — the blog is not mine, but is operated by the InterAction Collaboration, which is an effort of the communications organizations of the world’s particle physics laboratories.  (They signed the release form.)  But I did come up with an idea.  David had said that the show would refer to a Quantum Diaries blog post about a paper that Leonard and Sheldon had written.  Why not actually write such a post and put it up on the site?  A real blog post about a fake paper by fake scientists.  David was intrigued; he discussed it with the TBBT producers, and they liked the idea too.  The show was to air on February 5.  Game on!

David shared the shooting script with me, and explained that this was one of the rare TBBT episodes in which he didn’t just add in some science, but also had an impact on the plot.  He had described his own experience of talking about something with a theorist colleague, and getting the response, “That’s an interesting idea — we should write a paper about it together!”  I myself wouldn’t know where to get started in that situation.  This gave me the idea for how to write about the episode.  The script had enough information about Leonard and Sheldon’s paper for me to say something intelligible about it.  The fun for me in writing the post was in figuring out how to point to the show without giving it all away too quickly.  I ran my text by David, who passed it on to the show’s producers, and everyone enjoyed it.  We knew there was some possibility that the show’s social media team would promote the QD site through their channels; their Facebook page has 33 million likes and their Twitter account has 3.1 million followers.

Meanwhile, the Quantum Diaries team sprung into action.  Kelen Tuttle, the QD webmaster, told the other bloggers for the site about our opportunity to gain national recognition for the blog, and encouraged everyone to generate some exciting new content.  Regular QD readers might have noticed all the bloggers becoming very voluble in the past week!  Kevin Munday and his team at Xeno Media prepared the site for the possible onslaught of visitors  — remember, twenty million people watch TBBT each week! — by migrating the site to the CloudFlare content delivery network, with 30 data centers worldwide, and protecting the site against possible security issues.

We all crossed our fingers for Thursday night.  I spent Thursday at Fermilab, and was flying back to Lincoln in the afternoon, scheduled to land at 6:43 PM, a few minutes before the 7 PM air time.  When I got home, I started keeping an eye on the computer.  The blog post was up, but was TBBT going to say anything about it?  Alas, their Twitter feed was quiet during the show.  (No, I didn’t watch — I have to admit that we watch so little television that we couldn’t figure out which channel it might be on!)

All of us involved were a bit disappointed that evening.  But David took up the case again with the CBS interactive team the next day, and was told that they’d put out a tweet as long as we changed our blog post to link to the archive of the show.  We did that, and then at 12:45 Central Time, we got the shout-out that we were hoping for:

So what happens when a TV audience of around 20 million people hear a website (which may or may not be real) mentioned in a show?  Or when 3.1 million people who are fans of a TV show receive a tweet pointing to a blog post?  The Quantum Diaries traffic metrics tell the tale. Here is a plot of the number of visitors to the site during the past four weeks, including the February 5 air date and the February 6 tweet date:
qd_traffic
When the blog was mentioned on the air, there was a definite spike in activity, and an even bigger spike on the day after, when the tweet went out. Traffic on the site was up by a factor of four thanks to TBBT!

However, the plot doesn’t show the absolute scale. On February 6, the site had about 4600 visitors, compared to a typical level of 800-1000 visitors. This means that only 0.1% of people who saw the TBBT tweet actually went and clicked on the link that took them to QD. This is nowhere near the level of activity we saw when the Higgs boson was discovered. TBBT may be a great TV show, but it’s no fundamental scientific discovery.

However, the story did have some pretty strong legs in Nebraska.  My employer, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, graciously wrote a story about my involvement in the show and promoted it pretty heavily through social media.  This led to a couple of appearances on some news programs that enjoy making local links to national stories (if you could call this a national story).  I found it a bit surreal and was reminded that I need to get a haircut and clean my desk.

Thank you to David Salzberg for making this possible, and to the TBBT producers and writers who were supportive, and of course to all of my colleagues at Quantum Diaries who did a lot of writing and technical preparation last week.  (A special shout-out to Kelen Tuttle, who left QD for a new position at Invitae this week; at least we sent her off with a Big Bang!) And if you have discovered this blog because of “The Troll Manifestation”, I hope you stay for a while!  These are great times for particle physics — the Large Hadron Collider starts up again this year, we’re planning an exciting international program of neutrino physics that will be hosted in the United States, and we’re scanning the skies for the secrets of cosmology.  We particle physicists are excited about what we do and want to share some of our passion with you.  And besides, now we know that Stephen Hawking reads Quantum Diaries — shouldn’t you read it too?

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