The Big Blog Theory

By Sean Carroll | October 23, 2009 9:08 am

Recent years have seen a notable increase in the number of successful TV shows with some sort of scientific component — Numbers, CSI, House, Bones, Lie to Me, Fringe, and so on. But there’s no doubt which network show has the most accurate science on TV; that would be the CBS comedy The Big Bang Theory.

And it’s not because the writers are all physics Ph.D.’s who have traded in equations and laboratories for a glamorous life in Hollywood. It’s because the Big Bang Theory is one of the very few shows to have a full-time science advisor: David Saltzberg, a particle physicist at UCLA. David confers with the writers, reads every script, provides complicated-looking equations for the white boards in Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment, and suggests the occasional physics joke.

And now David, encouraged by some of his well-meaning friends, is going to be explaining the science behind the show in his new blog:

The show is a comedy, but the science here is completely serious — read about dark matter, quantum mechanics, monopoles, and all sorts of good stuff. I’m sure much of this was explained carefully in the original scripts, but landed on the cutting-room floor in interests of time.

The Big Bang Theory, of course, raises strong feelings among scientists. Right here at Discover, you can read both pro and anti feelings about the show. The complaints are mostly about the cheerful reliance on various stereotypes that we would just as soon see stamped out. All four of the main scientist characters are socially maladjusted guys; the one main non-scientist is a blonde woman with severe science-phobia.

I think the critique of sexism is mostly fair. In the real world, plenty of brilliant socially-maladjusted scientists are female! (To be fair, Penny represents the everyperson character to which the audience is supposed to relate; in almost every activity not related to science or technology, she is much more competent than the boys.) The critique that all these nerdy scientist characters somehow damage the image of science I find much less compelling — even though, in the real world, plenty of brilliant scientists aren’t socially maladjusted at all. It is, after all, a sitcom, not a public-service announcement; sitcoms get a lot of their mileage out of stereotypes. And as socially awkward as the scientist characters are, they are also portrayed as lovable and warm people at heart. Shows like this humanize science, and who knows what ten-year-old kid will see an episode and start thinking that physics is a career to which real people can actually aspire.

Now if we could just get across the idea that even young girls can aspire to these careers, we’d be getting someplace.

  • Anti-Dentite

    I think you’re missing the forest for the trees on (most) complaints about the show from a scientific perspective. The problem isn’t that the show portrays science in a negative way, it’s that the show is a broad and simplistic sitcom that just happens to include a familiar scientific angle. I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry is offended that his Dentist has converted to Judaism just for the jokes. It’s not the science part that bugs me, it’s the comedy.

  • Robert

    If you’re going to complain that the show may be sexist because the main scientist characters are all male, you should at least mention that one of Sheldon’s main competitors is a female physicist (played by Sara Gilbert) who has bested him on several occasions.

  • http://blog.denniswilliamson.us Dennis

    If you want to watch highly educated, beautiful people who are socially well adjusted – watch Gray’s Anatomy. Oh, you caught me. I knew I couldn’t keep a straight face.

    Socially well-adjusted people just aren’t as interesting in fiction (unless they have maladjusted ones to interact with).

    BBT is among the best broadcast network prime time shows that have ever aired. It makes me laugh out loud every week. CBS owns Monday night except for Accidentally on Purpose which is nothing more than a series of throw-away lines punctuated by laugh tracks. You can even tell that the guy pushing the laugh track button is bored. And I don’t know what has happened to NBC and comedy. They’ve almost completely thrown away a leadership position for the last several years with the exception of 30 Rock (but not excepting SNL – with the further parenthesized exception of Weekend Update).

    Unfortunately, shows with nerd-appeal have short lives. Witness Firefly and Sarah Conner Chronicles. Then there are the ones like Defying Gravity that are fatally flawed. My very great fear is that BBT won’t be around very much longer or that it will get “improved”.

  • http://realisy.blogspot.com MaxPolun

    Eh, I’d like The Big Bang Theory better if it was funny.

    Though it is nice that they get the science right.

  • Karaktur

    This show also has one of the best theme songs in TV history. 14.5 billon years of development is a 30 second jingle sung by bare naked ladies.

  • http://www.flamencoandarabicpop.com Adam Solomon

    I have to agree with some of the above: while I admit I’ve only seen a couple of episodes, they just weren’t that funny! A few good jokes, but just as many really terrible ones that fall flat but still get that annoying laugh track anyway.

    Death to the laugh track! Justice for all! *cue laughter*

  • gopher65

    I agree completely about the laugh track. tBBT is currently the only show that I watch that has a laugh track. The first time I watched an episode of The Big Bang Theory the fact that it had a laugh track threw me so completely that I almost turned the show off.

    I *hate* laughtracks. They’re there to try and make you laugh at the flat jokes. Buddies, I know when to laugh, alright? When there is a funny joke, it’ll get a chuckle out of me. If a joke is made that isn’t funny, then throwing in some canned laughter isn’t going to make me like it any more: it’s just going to annoy me.

    The day when the last laughtrack is removed from television will be a good day for humanity’s sanity:P.

    As for tBBT’s funniness, it is hit and miss. The episode with Summer Glau was so painfully unfunny that it was embarrassing to watch, while the Christmas episode with the Nimoy napkin was absolutely hilarious. The recent Wil Wheaton episode was so-so. It had some funny moments, but it had some boringness in there too.

  • I’d rather be fishin’

    TBBT has its funny moments, more than most sitcoms. Penny’s reaction to physics-speak is similar to when my fellow physics teachers start talking shop at staff meeting.

    The laugh track is so annoying and out of place, I think the guy in charge keeps missing his cue.

  • Kaleberg

    “Now if we could just get across the idea that even young girls can aspire to these careers, we’d be getting someplace.”

    Has anyone consider having a sitcom in which one of the brilliant, but socially awkward characters is a woman? There are a lot of brilliant, socially awkward girls out there. Why not some television for them? When the writers get tired of brilliant but socially awkward man jokes, they can mine the rich field of brilliant, but socially awkward woman jokes. It’s much easier to set up the joke when a brilliant female topologist gets to deal with a three armed Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garcons) dress than when you have to make it work with one of your guys. (I remember my brilliant, but not socially awkward, girlfriend trying to figure this one out.)

  • I’d rather be fishin’

    Why make the female physicist socially awkward? There is a awkward female in the science cast already. The socially- adept female might be a much more effective foil for the males.

  • Kevin

    I’ve never been able to make it through an episode of BBT. Not because I find the stereotypes offensive, but because I do actually know scientists like those on the show, and they (mainly the Sheldon types) are some of my least favorite people. I certainly don’t enjoy watching them on TV when I can barely stand to deal with them in real life.

    The only show I watch on CBS Mondays is How I Met Your Mother, but I watch Community, The Office, and 30 Rock on NBC Thursdays. I don’t think NBC has given up the lead in comedies; their comedy block is, in my opinion, stronger now than it has been since Friends ended.

  • SutroStyle

    I was a grad student in theoretical Physics at MIT, and I saw Sean Caroll (the author of this note) there. It’s very sad for the contemporary US science that among all people from there, people like Sean get to write to Discover magazine. However, Sean you can write all you want. America is over, thanks in part to career hypocrites like you. The sun rises in China now. You will become increasingly irrelevant, with all your political correctness that simply does nto work, when it gets to real competition.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Kaleberg– Bones is a show whose lead character is a socially awkward female scientist. So it can be done.

    Also, BBT does not have a laugh track; it’s filmed in front of a live audience.

  • http://www.shaky.com Timon of Athens

    Kevin said: “Not because I find the stereotypes offensive, but because I do actually know scientists like those on the show, and they (mainly the Sheldon types) are some of my least favorite people. I certainly don’t enjoy watching them on TV when I can barely stand to deal with them in real life.”

    Well said. You might have added that there are plenty of them in blog life as well as real life. You sureLy know who i Mean.

    I too would like to suggest to the people behind this show that it might be improved by injecting some humor. [The fact that it is shot in front of a “live” audience is stupefying. There are live human beings who laugh at that groanworthy horseshit? Only in America.] But it does provide a social service, in that it warns young people about the kind of people with whom they will be condemned to work if they make the mistake of taking up an academic career.

  • Pieter Kok

    I got side-tracked from reading this blog post when I followed the youtube links to related clips, but I finally made it all the way down through the comments. Wow, so much hatred. If you don’t find the show funny, don’t watch it.

  • gregl

    lame, lame, lame.

  • I’d rather be fishin’

    I didn’t say I hated the show, just the laugh track.

  • James

    What it really needs is not a science advisor, but a comedy advisor.

    I know some people love this show (maybe because they are physicists and think that it makes them look cool?) and comedy is very subjective, but despite having watched it numerous times with an open mind I haven’t laughed once.

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  • http://www.davidnataf.com David Nataf

    It’s good TV has matured beyond the linear focus on doctors and lawyers.

  • not-so-young girl

    “. . . even young girls can aspire to these careers”

    Really Sean?

  • Lucy

    I love this show.
    Especiall sheldon. They’re all lovable and hopefully people won’t get the idea that physicists aren’t all like that.
    :D

    Unfortunly, being in highschool, most people I know still think the show is stupid, just because it relates to a strain a science that is considered nerdy and uncool.

  • http://eternal-cartesian.blogspot.com/ Cartesian

    The problem for female scientists is that we can compare them to Caster Semenya for example (an excess of testosterone?).

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  • Tryan

    I love this show. Some episodes are funnier to me than others but I think the best ones strike a personal chord. I can’t understand anyone hating this show unless it’s so close to their own life it that it becomes painful.

  • Joshua

    I love the Big Bang Theory, and I AM a socially maladjusted scientist guy. Like in most comedies, it is their social dysfunction that makes the characters funny.

  • Amanda

    I think the show is brilliant. And yes it does have a female scientist but really that isn’t the point of the show. What amazes me is that it has such a big following because it feels like the humour is aimed at a tiny portion of the population. In fact it feels aimed at me :). I am married to some blend of Sheldon and the rest in smaller portions and the physics humour for me is awesome. Yet I am constantly amazed that there are enough other non physicists watching the show to sustain it.
    Oh – and – I spent the first few years of grad school ranting with my friends how there really needs to be a sitcom about life as a physics grad student. It is just surreal in so many ways. Life as a postdoc is not quite the same but they capture a lot of the bizarre physics career ethos. The eye of the tiger scene is just something every working scientist has experienced. Usually daily. It is a great show and I will be very sad the day I no longer get to see Sheldon on tv as well as at home !
    Oh and yes kids may watch it and realise science is a viable career – hey girls may watch it and not only want to be scientists too but maybe want to marry scientists! As maladjusted as they are they are all very endearing and loyal!

  • karaktur

    I know you watched this episode and I know you listened to the song…

    Our whole universe was in a hot dense state,
    Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started. Wait…
    The Earth began to cool,
    The autotrophs began to drool,
    Neanderthals developed tools,
    We built a wall (we built the pyramids),
    Math, science, history, unraveling the mysteries,
    That all started with the big bang!

    Still the best TV theme song in TV history and way cool to boot

    BANG!

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  • http://ashutoshchemist.blogspot.com Curious Wavefunction

    The Big Bang Theory is the only thing I watch on TV. It’s the only time my TV is switched on.

  • coolstar

    Well, BBT has grown on me, possibly bc the show has itself grown. While occasional scenes are unwatchable for me, they are more than made up for by the ones that are just laugh out loud funny. Having Summer Glau and Wil Wheaton play themselves on episodes was a stroke of genius.

  • Arun

    “Shows like this humanize science, and who knows what ten-year-old kid will see an episode and start thinking that physics is a career to which real people can actually aspire.”

    I am so sorry but I feel this is a silly opinion. Big Bang Theory has resulted in making normal people stop talking science without being labelled as boring. I mean, we friends used to visit pubs, and make grand discussions, etc, not in the boring way BBT makes it out to be, but in a really cool way. But it aint cool any more. The way Sheldon rolls out “boring” facts has made making a casual, yet an interesting observation about something scientific (simple things like why we have seasons), “uncool”. Only Penny is cool; others are so boring. Yes, I agree that the characters in BBT are boring, but Science is not! But BBT has resulted in making people feel that Science is boring, only talks of “sexiest man alive” and discussions about characters in sitcoms are cool and fit for “conversation”. But in fact everything is cool, and its all up to different people decide what is cool for them. “People love these characters” – oh yea, somebody love science and yearns to be a Raj or Sheldon after watching BBT? And Sheldon, he is an aspy, its not his fault, but the show makes out as though its his character fault, he is selfish, impolite etc. Laughing at him is actually impolite. And there are so many brilliant scientists and engineers in India who dont do frequent dates (thanks to the culture), yet is cool in their own way. There is not a single cool scientist in BBT. In my opinion BBT gives a view that – ok you can do science in the labs, but the moment you come out of it, talk like Penny and be cool.

    To paraphrase Feynman’s response to a lady who thought that he’s a cool physicist due to his “extra curricular” activities (like Samba, or drumming, or so many other things), unlike the usual, boring scientists – “I take offence at his complement of yours. I consider scientific pursuit as the highest form of human intelligence, and is not boring by any means”.

    I love BBT, but I differ on the impact it causes to Science. I also feel bad that people like Sean, who are at the top of research hierarchy, being at Caltech and working in theoretical physics, can make such silly observations.

    Sorry about the harsh opinion.

    Arun

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  • Calista and Allie

    If the author had done more research on the show he would have realized that the four male scientists work alongside female scientists as well. The fact that the female scientists are not shown on the show often does not mean that they are less important to the research facility; they are simply on different teams than the main characters. The one female main character is not on the show to undermine female scientists because she herself on the show isn’t a scientist she is just a friend of the male scientists. The author was jumping to conclusions when stating that the show is sexist towards women’s intelligence.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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