If you’re one of the few who haven’t seen the show, this CBS series centers around a group of young scientists defined by essentially every possible stereotype about nerds and geeks. The main character, Sheldon (Jim Parsons), is a theoretical physicist. He is exceptionally intelligent, but also socially unconventional, egocentric, envious and ultra-competitive. His best friend, Leonard (Johnny Galecki), is an experimental physicist who, although more balanced, also shows more fluency with quantum physics than with ordinary social situations.
Their steadfast friends are an aerospace engineer and an astrophysicist. The story revolves around the contrast between their intellect; obsession with comic books, video games, science fiction and fantasy; and struggles with the basics of human interactions, including those with their female counterparts.
Warner Bros. Studios
Science, especially physics, is a recurring theme in the show and the scientific authenticity and contemporaneity are noteworthy. Part of the credit for that goes to David Saltzberg, a professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA who served as a technical adviser for the series.
Even though it is not intended to educate, “The Big Bang Theory” frequently refers to real science. Many science communicators and distinguished scientists have made guest appearances, from Bill Nye to Stephen Hawking. But perhaps nothing is more recurrent in the show than the use of the “scientist” trope as the punchline of joke after joke.
So how would a physicist like myself get interested in this show? Not only is it the most popular sitcom on American television, but it’s also a pop culture bridge to science. While it is not the first time science has been represented in mainstream media, “The Big Bang Theory” is currently its most visible representation. In addition, it just happens that the fictional research in the show makes contact with my own real research.
A science-y setting on a popular show
I was first exposed to “The Big Bang Theory” through interactions with people from outside academia, who would often refer to it as soon as they pegged me as a physicist. Reports that their teenage kids loved the show were common.
But what really got my attention was a Guardian article in 2011 that suggested, albeit anecdotally, that the show was helping increase the enrollment of physics majors. Why? Possibly by bringing the attention of a broad audience to the subject or by making physics look cool. Now that I am familiar with the show, I believe “The Big Bang Theory” is to physics what “CSI” was to forensics. It has brought physics, and especially the people doing physics, to a young audience of prospective science students.
As a physics professor and educator, I have a vested interest in attracting and nurturing talents in physics – and even in 2019, television can influence choices people make. While only good physics teaching and mentoring can convert interested students into talented scientists, a TV show like “The Big Bang Theory” can be what gets them into the classroom in the first place.
The show’s somewhat stereotypical image of physicists also has weaknesses, of which the most significant are the use of misogyny as a point of humor and a lack of diversity in the main cast. The perpetuation of stereotypes can reinforce the perception that certain groups don’t belong in physics. An entertainment show is not obligated to mirror real life, but this is a sensitive issue because physics still suffers from a lack of diversity and the dropout rates are high among certain underrepresented groups.
Mike Yarish/©2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Notwithstanding, as the show developed, leading female characters took the stage: an attractive, down-to-earth neighbor, a successful microbiologist, and finally, there was the intelligent, accomplished Amy (Mayim Bialik), a neurobiologist selected through an online dating site as Sheldon’s perfect match. They married in the finale of the 11th season.
The same episode also marks one of the most celebrated moments of the series: Sheldon and Amy’s serendipitous discovery that put them on track for a Nobel Prize in Physics.
A fictional theory worthy of a Nobel
It all starts with groom Sheldon’s difficulty straightening out his bow tie. Amy tells him “I don’t think it is supposed to be even. Sometimes a little asymmetry looks good. In the Renaissance, they called it ‘sprezzatura.‘”