"The Big Bang Theory" and Social Science

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."

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I quite enjoy the show, but I agree that it does tend to have that sitcom feel to it. My biggest complaint with the show, however, is that the four main nerds are essentially all nerd stereotypes rolled together. And it's not just that the four of them combine to cover every facet of nerdom, no; it's that each one possesses every aspect of nerd culture simultaneously.

I'm a pretty nerdy guy myself, but I am not an omni-nerd, and I don't know any in real life who is, either. I like Star Wars, Star Trek, and role-playing games, to name a few, but I've never been into comic books, cosplay, or Magic.

This is only tangentially related to their depiction as scientists, but I think it speaks to a broader point that scientists are just people who (most of the time) just happen to take an interest in science. There's certainly a good deal of overlap between nerd fandom and science fandom, but what we (almost) never see on the show is science without the nerdness. The closest we come to that is the two women scientists.

By Ori Vandewalle (not verified) on 12 Feb 2013 #permalink

I will admit, The Big Bang Theory is one of my favorite shows on TV. I am a little surprised that all of the equations and "technical terms" used in the show are correct. However, I do believe the show gives a false view of the science community. Although I am sure that there are scientist out there that act similar to the characters off the show, the majority of the science community does not. The show could potentially scare future scientists away from their fields with the false image the show gives to scientist.

By Derek Warren (not verified) on 12 Feb 2013 #permalink

I quite enjoy the show as well. I am a college student and love the concept of the show. The show not only illustrates, as Ori has stated, that scientists are people too, but that it educates the general public at the same time. I have watched this show numerous times and have found that I learned things without even realizing. Not only is the show chuck full of information, but there are witty, and comical science jokes thrown in throughout. The show also relates to everyone as it goes through the daily struggles of finding love, making friends, being successful at work and being happy.

There are multiple episodes that teach viewers a theory, equation, or just a glimpse at some sort of science. One episode, in particular, where Sheldon teaches Penny physics is a perfect example of this. The director makes physics look impossible to the general public as Penny struggles to comprehend the basic concepts of physics. However, Sheldon is only teaching Penny an introduction to force and acceleration. Actually, I am in a physics 101 class at the moment and we are just going over this topic now! The topic is the general equation for force being: F=MA. Sheldon goes on further to explain how A=9.8m/s^2 and how MA=-MG. This is observed mainly in free body diagrams and freely falling bodies. It follows along with Newton’s second law being F=MA. The sum of the force equals MG. By manipulating the formulas we get A=G which brings us back to A=9.8m/s^2. There are plenty of examples that go on to teach viewers information subconsciously while making it fun.

By David Switay (not verified) on 12 Feb 2013 #permalink

I agree that the show does give off an inaccurate description of scientists and physicists. Although the show describes the science issues fairly well, the awkward portrayal of the cast members as scientists just doesn't fit. I can say from the multiple times I have watched this show, I can relate some of the topics and equations discussed in the episode to what I have and am learning in my physics class. It could be quite possible that people who are working on experiments and labs together would sit together at their lunch table but the lack of outward socialization depicted in the show in often not what is seen in the real life science world.

By Caitlin Thomas (not verified) on 12 Feb 2013 #permalink

I, personally, am in love with this show. It uses the sitcom humor you were talking about mixed with issues in the world of physics, as well as other issues in dealing with social aspects; relationships, friendships, family, etc. It has a little something for everyone.

Sheldon is a genius physicist who can figure out any problem pertaining to theoretical physics, however, he is socially inept, causing him to come off as awkward or lacking common sense. It's almost as if he's always in his own little world and doesn't pay attention to important social rituals that occur in modern life. He's too wrapped up in his work.

A lot of physicians and psychologists have often related his personality to Asperger syndrome or OCD. One example would be the "Roommate Agreement" he made for Leonard in the early episodes of the show. Another example would be the particular seating arrangement Sheldon is so adamant about. He has his own spot on the couch, stating that the lighting is perfect and directly proportional to the middle of the television screen. Although there are so many things about Sheldon's personality that resemble these characteristics, the writers of the show deny any claims made.

Like you said, Chad, when looked at within their small group, they come off as 'normal,' with an exception of Sheldon, of course. Their daily activities are normal according to the way they live. But however, when looked at compared to the "normal" society of today, as portrayed by Penny, they are looked at as "abnormal."

While the show does a lot of over-stereotyping in relation to physicist vs nerd topic, it's important to remember that it is a fictional show. It portrays the lives of four physicists who just so also happen to be engulfed in Star Trek, Star Wars, and action figures to the point of obsession. If the show were based purely off of the intellectual abilities of the four men, without the humor added of being obsessed with these things, the show would probably be on a different channel.

Overall, the show has a perfect mixture of everything, for both physicists and non. It covers a wide range of social/ intellectual issues that make it widely acceptable for several groups of people.

Although the show gives off an inaccurate view of actual scientists and physicists, I am a fan of the Big Bang Theory. Personally, I really like science and I have always had a huge interest in the field, but I am by all means not what you would call the stereotypical nerd like the show may portray. The show does a great job of educating its audience with science, but it also shows that the stereotypical "nerd" has a life outside of the lab. Such as having a successful career, falling in love, and maintaining a group of friends. Scientists we not born scientists, they were born individuals and they deal with daily struggles just like the rest of us and I think the show does a great job portraying that. Sure, the show shows the group of guys sitting at the same lunch table not socializing or interacting with others, although the real science world isn't to that extreme, you will see that with many jobs. People working on a similar project or people working together will most likely sit by each other on a lunch break because people like familiarity and they will mostly likely discuss similar topics with they work together.

By Brooke Cenkus (not verified) on 12 Feb 2013 #permalink

The show is funny and catchy but even the beginning song sung by Barenaked Ladies has many verses that are not exactly true. I had a class in Astronomy last semester and we had a class assignment for picking out how many verses were wrong and there was over 10. The show is stereotyping nerds and it isn't a bad show I laugh every time i watch.

By Brandyn Hamrick (not verified) on 12 Feb 2013 #permalink

Just to start off I want to say that this is one of my top favorite shows on TV. It is hilarious at most times and also shows different points of view of all the different characters. Each scientist is portrayed to have their own quirky characteristic or personality and they all mesh very well together. Also, they depict how some people who are not scientists, such as Penny, view and understand those who are scientists. She may not be as book smart as the scientists, but she does seem to have a better grip on the bigger picture of reality. She also has an easier time socializing with others, unlike Sheldon, Leonard, and the others. Sheldon especially has difficulties in the social world because he does not understand how to have a "normal" conversation. To him everything that deals with physics, Star Wars, and Action heroes is normal; those things that do not pertain to those categories is abnormal to him. Also, he is shown o supper from OCD because of how many times he always has to knock on Penny's door, he has to sit in the same spot on the couch and she has his schedule of foods he eats for dinner for each day and it never changes.

In my opinion, I feel the show has just enough mixture of those who are extremely smart and those who understand the bigger picture of reality better. Also, it shows how they interact with each other and the differences they have. This show is awesome and I think every adult should at least watch it once, even if you aren't a science buff or a scientist.

Although at times it becomes too much of a sitcom The Big Bang Theory is one of my favorite shows. I am also a college student and would consider myself to be nerd. I agree with Ori that the makers of the show seemed to give them every nerdy quality when in reality they should only have just a few. However, it does add to the show by showing them as almost super nerds and by doing so provides at least one aspect of their life that nerds can relate to.

I too found it interesting that they used correct equations in the show. Too often shows that involve some sort of science completely misrepresent the equations and concepts relating to them. I hope they continue to do the same and not just simply push towards better ratings as the show gains popularity.

I think one important thing to point out is that although the show is a sitcom and a lot of people watch it for the humor, it does bring some attention to the physics and engineering fields. At least by watching the show, some people who normally wouldn’t care about physics will be exposed to it. For example, the episode where they talk about the Large Hadron Collider, it exposed people to information that they probably wouldn’t have otherwise heard.

By Brian Simmons (not verified) on 13 Feb 2013 #permalink

I like the use of science in the media in such a way that it gets so much exposure. The Big Bang Theory reaches to many viewers that would not normally watch a show about science because it is a sitcom. While it all has to be taken with a grain of salt, it is nice that the equations and problems they discuss on the show are real and accurate. This show is not meant to be educational, it is meant to be funny. However, there are some educational messages that people can take away from watching this show. While the nerd stereotype may be exaggerated in this show, that is the nature of a sitcom. I agree with the author that it is creating a "net positive" for the science community. I just don't think it should be taken that seriously.

By Brooke D. (not verified) on 13 Feb 2013 #permalink

One thing the show misses from the scientific community is the pompous a-hole persona (unless physics is missing this type and it's only prominent in chemistry and biology). These are the scientists that are smart, ambitious, and oftentimes at the top of their field, but they are acutely aware of this fact and feel it justifies treating others like crap. While it's not most scientists, every major chemistry department has at least one or two professors who will belittle and bully their students in an attempt to "motivate" them.

Also, a character on the show who is like this might actually be an interesting story line, creating a bad guy in the department who can pop up now and again.

I personally love the Big Bang Theory, and it is nice to know that all of the physics terms they are using in the show are correct. I am taking my first physics class in college now and know how challenging it can be to learn. I love shows like this that are funny but also make you wonder more about physics.

@andre: Physics is a big enough field that I'm sure there are professors out there who are BSDs, but in my experience this is less common than I hear is true of biology and chemistry, Although I know a number of PIs who have enough funding to support the proverbial army of grad students and postdocs, I am not personally acquainted with any physics professor I know to be a BSD. Part of it is the greater history of collaboration between groups in different locations (starting with the Manhattan Project and continuing with various Big Science projects today), which as Chad points out is one of the things the show doesn't get right. Between that and the tradition of sending your preprints to other groups (the forerunner of today's arXiv), there is less overtly hostile competition between physics groups than in chemistry and biology labs, where the fear of getting scooped has a rational basis.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 13 Feb 2013 #permalink

One thing the show misses from the scientific community is the pompous a-hole persona (unless physics is missing this type and it’s only prominent in chemistry and biology). These are the scientists that are smart, ambitious, and oftentimes at the top of their field, but they are acutely aware of this fact and feel it justifies treating others like crap.

Actually, I think Sheldon pretty much nails that. Though I guess he's not faculty...

Anecdotal data point here:

Having done my grad work at Rice (which some lore claims is the department hosting the people Sheldon was originally based on/parodying), I found very little of the stereotyping to be exaggerated or unrealistic. For example, the guy from my cohort who got the coveted slot in a certain physics blogger's lab - physics A-game, people D-game.

(In contrast, I found the sheer prevalence of liquor in Battlestar Galactica harder to believe - just where was all the grain to be fermented coming from! And why did no one show signs of cirrhosis?)

I do agree with the first comment's point that many types of nerdery are rolled into relatively few characters. The variety of interests is realistic, but they are deployed without regard for realism in order to achieve comedic effect.

Gad!, things have changed. Before I start the boring part, thank you for this. I learned much.
I fear the solitariness was the norm in my college days. In twelve years of UG/G school, I never was a member of a lunch bunch. We might eat lunch in a facility once a week and go as an ad hoc group but most days it was brown bag at the desk or, in good weather, outside. The only time the students of any professor gathered socially was at the professor's instigation. And when we did group the discussion was physics, not recreation.
Speaking as a physics guy with at least mild Asperger's, I can offer that the talkative (nattering is the term I have always heard and used,) and adamantine silence are not exclusive; I do both and it depends on the social environment. A large part of it is my (Southron) mother's programming on how-to-behave. Around NTEs - Non-Technical Extroverts silence is the norm; among geeks, nattering.
What I find most jarring about the BBT program is the absence of shop talk. I know the writers have to filter it out to have an audience but it is very offputting that the only nerd talk is throwaway and the modality is recreational activities totally alien to my experience.

By Bruce W. Fowler (not verified) on 13 Feb 2013 #permalink

Chad: Good point. Sheldon fits what I said, but I don't think he fits what I meant. I guess the most important word from my previous post that I find doesn't apply to him is "bully". Maybe it's because he isn't faculty and lacks the power.

Part of it is that the really pompous a-holes I have come across haven't been socially inept and don't have as much of an excuse as someone like Sheldon who seems to lack a certain amount of empathy.

Leonard and Sheldon are pretty clearly faculty - I think Dr. Gablehauser refers to Sheldon as "Professor Cooper" in at least one episode, and there's at least one episode where they are shown teaching what appears to be a grad student seminar course. Not to mention the realism issue that if they were postdocs the show would have ended after season 3 as they moved on to other jobs or became unemployed… Raj is unclear - based on longevity he'd seem to be faculty too, but then again he did have to go work for Sheldon for a while after he lost his own funding, so that suggests postdoc. My take is that he's doing the long term soft money career path (which was always dicey and may have become impossible with the current funding climate). Wolowitz is most plausibly a JPL employee, but could be hand-waved to have some sort of engineering staff position on campus to keep the main characters in the same place. :-)

Regarding the pompous a-hole role - to some extent Sheldon, to some extent Dr. Gablehauser, to some extent Kripke. And of course there's Stephen Hawking being hilariously petty about the "words with friends" game he had with Sheldon.

Aren't we taught to embrace our inner nerd though? While the characters sustain the extreme stereotype, we have to accept that we scientists are nerds. Part of being a celebrity is forming a trademark like Bill Nye's bow tie, Neil DeGrasse Tyson's starry vest, or Jamie Hyneman's catfish mustache. Its just too bad all the cool trademarks are taken.

By Zack Terranova (not verified) on 14 Feb 2013 #permalink

Andre @#11 and #17:

Have you seen any of the episodes with "Barry Kripke" in them? He irritates Sheldon by being even more of a pompous ass when dealing with intellectual inferiors, a group that he puts Sheldon in.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 18 Feb 2013 #permalink

No discussion of the portrayal of female scientists and engineers and whether that is good or bad for the future of science? That has been a major part of the evolution of the show, with one more apparently being added right now.

Is it interesting (and important) that the nerdy female scientists fit right in with Penny? Or that this younger generation seems better adjusted than the one represented by Leonard's mother?

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 18 Feb 2013 #permalink