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Regina Caputo | USLHC | USA

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Why physics will never be enjoyed by “normal” people, or why I hate the Big Bang Theory

“If they could teach Koko the gorilla sign language, surely I could teach you rudimentary physics.”
-Sheldon to Penny (last Monday night’s episode)

Sure, they routinely throw up things like the Schrodinger equation and make references to things like quantum mechanics… and whether or not I may laugh periodically… I really dislike The Big Bang Theory (BBT from here on out).

Don’t get me wrong, I know people who love it – my parents for example. When I tell them I went to trivia night, they say things like “Oooh! that’s just like on the BBT”. They ask which of my friends is like Leonard or Sheldon and ask me if the equations they randomly throw up on the screen are actually physics equations. Of course my parents think I’m pretty smart, and they have met some of my physicist friends.

It’s not the science of BBT that I have problems with. It’s how the only physicists in the show are nerdy, socially awkward, and intolerant. Granted Sheldon (the stereotype of stereotypes) is kind of the jerk of the group, but he likens someone who for all intent and purposes is reasonably intelligent to a gorilla… but Penny can’t be smart, she’s pretty and blonde, and likes shoes. >Sigh<

Screen shot from the BBT

“Newton was a smart cookie… ooh is that where Fig Newtons come from?” – Penny

Granted the goal is to be funny, but I hate how the show only has socially incompetent and extraordinarily nerdy guys. And how they make physics completely inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t wear glasses. Sheldon starts teaching Penny physics with a history lesson starting 3000 years ago and chastises her for not taking notes. Instead he could tell her to looking around and see nature. Physics is the study of how nature works. (But that’s not Sheldon’s character… he wants physics to be inaccessible).

I have 20/20 vision, enjoy shoes, hair cuts, showering daily, monkey pants, Glee, and books that don’t have an equation in the text… so do lots of my (physics) friends.  I think lots of people are pushed away from physics at an early age because of shows like this. And it’s self fulfilling: only a certain type is portrayed therefore only that certain type feels welcome… so only a certain type becomes physicists.

Of course, at the end of the day, the BBT is a comedy show. But that doesn’t mean that the writers can’t do something positive for physics… like maybe have a woman physicist on the show who isn’t a sociopath, or a guy who has interests outside of physics.

Granted it’s not just this show in particular. One of my childhood favorites – Saved by the Bell – always has the science teacher as a nerdy, white guy in a lab coat who was really really weird (this was also true of the math teacher… whereas the history/English/art teachers were always women… way to break down barriers Saved by the Bell…). I guess that wasn’t enough of a deterrent for me, but I also had a really cool science teacher in 4th grade. She told me that the world needed little girls like me to go into science. I remember the conversation to this day – I think at the time, I wanted to be an astronaut :).

There are lots of programs out there to try to combat this stereotype (as an undergrad, I was involved in Expanding your Horizons and Girl scout Badge day both of which were targeted on getting girls interested in science), but social “norms” are entrenched in everything that we see and do. The only real way to promote change is to talk to normal guys, girls and minorities face to face and tell them that science is for everyone – not just the socially awkward.

And that’s why I dislike the Big Bang Theory :)

- Regina

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18 Responses to “Why physics will never be enjoyed by “normal” people, or why I hate the Big Bang Theory”

  1. kathy says:

    Right on, Regina. I think I’ve tried to make the argument you make above — pretty much word for word. :) One of the only episodes of BBT that I’ve seen is one where a lady dating Sheldon comes up with some crucial idea for the theory he’s working on and then when he publishes it, he doesn’t acknowledge her as a co-author. SO FUNNY! HA HA HA. oh. sad.

  2. Mark says:

    Thank you, Regina. I panned the Big Bang Theory in a piece I did for Wired.com reviewing all the new “nerd-centric” television shows coming out in 2007. Although I’ve tried a few times since to give it another chance, I have yet to find anything more than mildly funny about it. I know it’s a hit and people dig it. But while there’s plenty of good comedy on television these days (The Colbert Report does better comedy + science bits in just their 10 minute author interview segments!) … BBT has always seemed to this viewer to be merely pandering to lazy & easy stereotypes.

  3. Nilanjan says:

    @Regina: Exaggerating the stereotypes is one of the prime motive behind comedy for this show. No one is supposed to get motivated to physics by watching an entertaining show, neither the makers of this show had such an intent, otherwise they could have gone for a PBS special. If BBT showed normal physicists like you, then from where would the fun come? And those equations (although all are correct) are just to give a geeky ambiance, not frighten any beginners in physics.
    Apart from teaching Penny history of physics, Sheldon also gave a very intimidating and discouraging speech during a Graduate Student orientation in one of the episodes, and I think everyone would accept that it was just an exaggeration of the fact that Sheldon is socially awkward.

  4. Nilanjan says:

    @kathy: I don’t think she came up with a crucial idea, she just helped him focus on the problem and did some assisting calculations for him. Ofcourse, Sheldon should have given a reference to her in a footnote, but this was yet another exaggeration and thus funny!

  5. Owen says:

    You have hit the nail on the head. Even though I have enjoyed some of the jokes, this show really gets on my nerves. None of the people on this show are actually *characters*! They are all caricatures of what the writers think physicists, astronomers, and engineers are like.

    Now, I do not mind some caricaturization, especially on a comedy show. But I think that if you should have no more than one such person per show. Sheldon is so far out there, he crosses into the cartoonish, and with him there, I feel all the more need for everyone else to be more grounded.

  6. Wow, I never thought that BBT would make it all the way to CERN.

  7. Regina says:

    Hi Nilanjan,

    I know the point of the show isn’t to motivate people to go into physics, but if you think people don’t watch the show and think… wow, that’s how physicists are, you’re underestimating the power of television. This is why I think this show would discourage normal people (kids) from going into physics. What bothers me too is that I know they have physicist consultants. The instance that Kathy mentioned (about Sheldon not giving a colleague credit on a paper for their work) obviously came from someone working in the field. I’m on ATLAS, every time the ATLAS collaboration publishes a paper, my name is on it. If you assist in the contribution to a paper, your name isn’t a footnote. I guess I just don’t think it’s funny.

    I know my daily doings may not be super interesting, but a show that I think pulled it off was Scrubs (at least the first 4-5 seasons). Sure, Dr. Cox was a very critical and harsh, but all the characters were multidimensional – not just nerdy or mean or caricatures. They addressed how hard it was to have a social life while doing residency and touched on social issues like the difficulties minorities have in the field – all while being funny. And my friends in med school said that the show wasn’t that far off.

    I just wish the writers of the show would meet some real physicists so they could broaden their characterizations.

    Regina

  8. dan says:

    This month’s Esquire magazine (yes, I am a male and read esquire! what a stereotype!)has a piece about exactly such issues. The article would have you look at ‘Jersey Shore’ and ‘Modern Family’ and, really, any other more or less recent show that falls into the category of easy entertainment (‘The Wire’, ‘Sopranos’, etc are excluded here. They are clearly on a different playing field). They are all just based on playing up stereotypes. But the point is that (hopefully) most people watching the show can understand this and can see the humor in it. Clearly, some people can’t.

  9. I find it the funniest show on TV. Of course, in real life I did graduate with two degrees from Caltech, was offered a teaching position at Pasadena City College (where Penny went), and know that the show has an actual Science Adviser, is partially filmed in actual Pasadena, and the lead character is based on an actual annoying String Theory person who seems to suffer from Aspergers. Oh, and my wife is a Physics professor, does not think the show promotes stereotypes, but rather demolishes them. Isn’t part of the point that Penny has more common sense than all the geeks combined?

  10. Christine Nattrass says:

    I’d never seen the show before, but I watched a bit of it after this. It seemed to be all stereotypes – I couldn’t make it through more than about 10 minutes. Maybe it gets the science right, but this is not what my life looks like, nor is it what any of my friends’ lives look like. I’m with Regina on this one.

    I found the characters one dimensional. One of the thing I like best about physics is the people I work with. They’re so diverse and interesting. Yes, we all love physics, but most of us have eclectic interests too.

  11. Elin says:

    I agree with Jonathan. I love the Big Bang Theory. I am not a physicist (30-something humanities graduate), but not only do I find it very funny, I also have a certain admiration for its characters and think they are kind of cool. It is one of the things that actually spurred me on to learn more maths and physics and spend my spare time with books like ‘The Character of Physical Law’ (which btw also has jokes in it). Admittedly it is not the only cause of my current desire to learn. I will also consider the possibility that I am not an element of the set of normal people…

  12. I agree that the show stereotypes and that has negative consequences. But it’s hard to get too upset with things that don’t accomplish stuff that were never one of its goals. Like you said, it’s just a TV show, it’s not a graduate school recruitment pamphlet or a guidance counselor.

    Its primary goal is to make money by being entertaining. By that measure it’s doing well – ratings have increased each of the 3 seasons it’s been on. So they are receiving positive feedback in the way they needed and so viewers are showing they want Big Bang Theory to keep doing what they have been doing. Viewers enjoy the nerd stereotypes, I suppose?

  13. Blake Stacey says:

    I’ve never understood the “they have to exaggerate and stereotype in order to be funny” argument. That may be an explanation, but it is not an excuse: it’s just another way of saying that the writers don’t actually know how to be funny.

    Plenty of odd and entertaining things have happened to me and the other scientists I know. (I have a wonderful story which begins with the kinky handcuffs and ends with a building getting flooded, but this comment box is to narrow to contain it.) You could fill a TV show with ‘em. The only “exaggeration” which might be necessary would be to concentrate the moments of high drama and absurd hilarity which really do happen to scientists into a more condensed timeframe or a smaller group of people.

    And, if that’s not enough, make yourself a story arc. Kill off the department head and see how your characters react. Have the VLA pick up a radio signal from aliens. (There was enough material in Sagan’s original novel Contact to make a TV miniseries, I’m sure.) If it’s extraordinary levels of drama you demand, have scientists drawn from real life react to the extraordinary!

  14. May'rm says:

    Look I’m a well adjusted female physicist who often is frustrated by stereotypes, however I find that with sit-coms (American ones in particular) exist FOR ENJOYMENT.
    So perhaps you should stop over-analysing everything and just relax. There’s a shortage of physicists in the world not because people are deterred from an early age, but a career in physics generally doesn’t pay well. Even when you do have an eidetic memory and can be cut-throat enough to get funding for research or can bring yourself to take a job as a R&D physicist at some boring company.

    And FYI not all of the physicists on BBT are socially awkward losers: Dr. David Underhill (“The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis”)

  15. Jasper says:

    The good thing about the show is that it has a science blog: http://thebigblogtheory.wordpress.com/

  16. flo says:

    hey regina, thanks for this article.
    sheldon couldn’t have done it better.
    i mean, seriously???

  17. funny images says:

    funny images…

    [...]Quantum Diaries[...]…

  18. Testetets says:

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