I found myself writing about the social skills of scientists today for the book-in-progress (something I’ve done here before), and how they’re portrayed in the media, so of course I had to drop in a reference to “The Big Bang Theory.” Jim Parsons’s portrayal of Sheldon Cooper pretty much nails down one of the extremes of the “socially inept scientist” axis, the borderline autistic genius who can’t comprehend normal social interactions, but still won’t shut up. The other extreme, of course, is occupied by Paul Dirac, who famously almost never spoke.
“The Big Bang Theory” is an endless source of controversy within physics, over whether its popularity is a net benefit to science, or whether it just perpetuates bad stereotypes. I’m not a huge fan of the show, mostly because it’s too sitcom-y, but I lean to the “net positive” side– the characters are stereotypical nerds, but they’re also unquestionably the heroes of the piece. You’re pushed (in very unsubtle ways) to root for Leonard in particular, but all of the nerd characters, and I think that’s probably a good thing, in the end. There’s vehement disagreement about this point, though, and I don’t feel strongly enough about it to really argue for one side or the other.
Defenses of the show often turn around the things it gets right, in particular the use of terminology and the equations on the whiteboards in the background of many of the sets. These are supplied by David Saltzberg, a physicist at UCLA, who consults with the show on science issues (sadly, his blog about the show hasn’t been updated in ages). They also make use of a lot of promotional materials from the American Physical Society’s outreach program for set dressing, which is cool.
In thinking about social skills in science, though, it occurred to me that there’s another thing they get right that isn’t as frequently mentioned, which is the essentially social nature of science. The individual characters are a little too solitary in their own research activities (they all appear to be postdocs in different labs, with no other postdocs or graduate students on their research projects), but one of the stock settings of the show is a university cafeteria (shown in the featured image above, which I got from this USA Today image gallery), where the characters have lunch and occasionally discuss the problems they’re working on.
This sort of socialization is an under-appreciated part of the practice of science. Most labs and departments that I’ve worked in have this kind of informal lunch group, where people working on related projects tend to eat together, and sometimes bat ideas around. The frequency and degree of formality varies a lot from place to place– when I was at NIST the laser cooling group used to go to the cafeteria en masse every day, often ending up with 10-15 people at a table in the courtyard. At Yale, it wasn’t quite as regular, but I used to go to the School of Management dining hall fairly regularly with the students and post-docs from another of the projects in my boss’s lab. And when I visit other labs or universities, there’s almost always a lunch with a range of faculty who eat together regularly.
These informal lunches can often prove useful beyond providing calories and commiseration– on several occasions, talking about work at lunch has provided crucial information or advice. Somebody who isn’t as close to a particular problem may suggest a different approach that will prove fruitful, or they may have experience with a particular bit of equipment (“Oh, yeah, those laser mounts are utter crap. Use this other kind instead.”) or software. A couple of times at NIST, vexing issues were solved by a chance mention of a bug in the LabView program that controlled most of the experiments in the group, which came up at lunch one day early in my grad school career, and remembering that conversation saved me a lot of work down the road.
And it occurred to me that whatever you may think about the portrayal of the “Big Bang Theory” characters in their interactions with people from outside the scientific fold, they do a pretty good job with the internal interactions. The characters aren’t socially adept in the usual sense, but they have a clear social group, with fairly realistic dynamics, and within their own little world, they’re pretty good. Other than Sheldon, of course, but that’s why he’s interesting.
I don’t really have any deeper point than noting that this stuff belongs in the category of things that the show gets right. And also using the slightly deceptive post title, which you should imagine as a tribute to Jim Parsons as Sheldon unsuccessfully insisting on a particular emphasis in the team name “The Wesley Crushers.”