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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