Sheldon Cooper and Alfred Nobel

Last week, before we headed out for the weekend, I had a brief exchange with Ben Lillie on Twitter, prompted by the following set of tweets:

I sort of feel obliged to respond to this, because I’m both a person who has complained about the lone scientist myth in movies and a guy who’s running a Nobel Prize betting pool, increasing the hype for the upcoming awards (to the infinitesimal degree that I can contribute, anyway). But as I said to Ben, it doesn’t fit well within Twitter’s character limits. The short version, though, is that the Nobel Prizes are basically like The Big Bang Theory on tv.

By that, I don’t mean that they’re a sitcom with an obtrusive laugh track– though there are some comical aspects to the overall pomposity of the event. (OBNobelStories: when Bill Phillips won back in ’97. he created a small stir by blowing a kiss to his wife when he bowed to the audience after receiving the medal, and the Literature laureate, Dario Fo, was ostentatiously sleeping during the boring introductory speeches.) Instead, I mean that both are cultural icons that are a bit controversial and somewhat problematic in terms of their portrayal of science but I think on balance they do more good than harm.

In the case of the Nobels, the primary source of controversy is, as Ben mentioned, the fact that they’re awarded to small number of individuals. This creates an incorrect perception of the business of science as something done by brilliant individuals on their own, when in fact the bulk of the work is done in teams. This is exacerbated by the entirely arbitrary limitation to three recipients, which often leads to deserving scientists being shut out entirely. This is getting a bit more attention these days because the Higgs boson is an obvious candidate for a Nobel in the near future, but there are at least half a dozen physicists with a reasonable claim to the idea. But even with lower profile subjects, there are always a few people with a beef after the announcements are made– the grad students and post-docs who did the real work for which the laureate is being honored, or competitors who had similar results at around the same time, and so on.

In the case of The Big Bang Theory, the problem is more one of image. There’s still a lone genius problem– none of the characters have anywhere near enough collaborators to be actual scientists– but the main source of controversy is that they play as broad stereotypes. They’re not socially adept in any conventional sense, or physically attractive, and their personalities are just collections of nerd signifiers. A fair fraction of physicists roll their eyes when the show gets brought up, and some are deeply annoyed by the perpetuation of unflattering stereotypes about physicists.

On balance, though, I think the show probably ends up being a positive thing– and I say this as someone who would have some reason to complain about the stereotyping. In the end, though, what saves it (for me– this is just opinion, mind) is that for as much as the principal characters are broad nerd stereotypes, at least in the episodes I’ve seen, they are also unquestionably the heroes of the piece. The real focus for audience identification seems to be the character of Leonard, but the plot structure pushes the audience very strongly to root for the science nerds– in the handful of episodes that bring “normal” people into the picture, they either end up as the butt of jokes, or as the villains of the episode. (This is actually the factor that keeps me from watching– I’m not wild about the stereotyping, but the ham-fisted plotting is much harder to take…)

There are unquestionably problems with the show and the characters, and I can totally see how somebody else could decide that the overall package breaks in a different way. But ultimately, I end up feeling that the benefit of getting a massive audience to root for such ostentatious nerd stereotypes is enough of a positive factor to outweigh the negatives of the stereotyping.

Similarly, with the Nobels, I agree that the “lone genius” aspect of the thing is problematic, and they may in some small way encourage cutthroat behavior on the part of elite scientists. But on the other hand, this is the one event every year that’s guaranteed to put science on the front page of major national newspapers in a positive light. They’re not the only story of the year, by any stretch, but with the Nobels, you know you’re going to get a “Hey, look, here’s some amazing science stuff!” frame, where a lot of other high-profile science stories are much more ambiguous, or even negative. October is the one month when I know I will get faculty colleagues from other departments asking me to explain some cool point of physics in a way that is genuinely excited and curious.

That kind of unambiguously positive buzz, which happens on a very broad scale, makes up for a little bit of hard feelings and excessive valorization of individuals. Again, this is just my opinion, and I can see how somebody else might decide that the balance tips the other way, but as far as I’m concerned, the Nobels are a good thing for science on the whole, and I’m happy to have them as an annual celebration of science.

(The original images used to make the composite in the “featured image” above come from here and here.)

Comments

  1. #1 Matt Leifer
    http://mattleifer.info
    October 1, 2013

    IMO, the main benefit of The Big Bang Theory is the ability to do this when meeting someone for the first time:

    Someone: So, what do you do for a living?
    Me: You know the show “The Big Bang Theory”?
    Someone: Yes, so you are a physicist?
    Me: No, I’m an aspiring blonde actress who works as a waitress in the cheesecake factory.

  2. #2 Tom
    October 1, 2013

    The Big Bang Theory isn’t really unique in employing stereotypes. Every sitcom focused on a family has a buffoonish father. Every sitcom focused on work has an overbearing boss. Will and Grace was lauded as bringing gay characters to America, but Jack, and to a lesser extent, Will, were flamboyant gay stereotypes. Nerd culture has never had a vehicle on network TV, so anything that treats it lovingly (and the show does, I think) is fine with me, even if they roll a bunch of disparate traits into the 4 main characters. Plus, there is admittedly a lot of fun to be poked. I recognize myself and my friends in all the characters. Would it really be so much better if they introduced a new character for each new quirk?

  3. #3 Uncle Al
    http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm
    October 2, 2013

    The Big Bang Theory is Friends with autists, Penny being Joey. This is insightful and entertaining. However, Sheldon is not the intellectual hero, Kripke is. Kripke fought his way up, Kripke outperforms the lot of them, and Kripke is self-aware (albeit very “cweepy”).

    Should physics be a comedy? What validated quantitative empirical detection exists for dark matter, string/M-theory, quantum gravitation; SUSY, solar axions, proton decay; LHC string/brane exotica, sparticles, leptoquarks, lazy photons, WIMPs, supersymmetry exotica, extra-dimensions, magnetic monopoles, mini-black holes, Randall-Sundrum 5-D phenomena (gravitons, K-K gluons, etc.); ADS/CFT duality, colorons, fractionally charged particles.?

    Axiomatic systems cannot self-falsify an empirically defective founding postulate. The past 45 years of physics offer “cweepy” comedy. The Big Bang Theory and Friends orbit a local minimum,as does physical theory overall. It becomes a death spiral.