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.


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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] .


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