The Big Bang Theory versus Real-Life Physicists
Reel Life vs. Real Life
Once we step outside Mythbusters, the portrayal of scientists on TV encounters a steepest descent on the realism manifold that would shame the best of conjugate gradient algorithms (yes, including simulated annealing. Duh). The most egregious offender is, of course, the sitcom. From the defective social skills and poor grooming to the obtuse humor and poor grooming, it's like these shows purposefully exaggerate nerdy character traits for comedic effect!
We here at LabKitty don't play scientists on TV, but we are scientists in real life. As such, we have a vested interest in how Hollywood portrays those of us in the rough trade. Case in point: CBS nerdfest The Big Bang Theory.
Five Ways in Which the Guys on TBBT are Different from Real-Life Physicists
For those of you not familiar with The Big Bang Theory, the show revolves around the exploits of two CalTech physicists and the arrival of comely new neighbor Penny who turns their life into a living hell with those little tops and tight capris.
TBBT hits many nerd points spot-on, and does a pretty decent job with the techno-jargon (although please stop saying "complex Mandelbrot set." Nobody says "complex Mandelbrot set." It's just "Mandelbrot set"). But, as the saying goes, birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, and LabKitty gotta eat those birds and fish. Having reviewed Seasons 1 & 2, our inner nerd demands we point out:
FIVE WAYS IN WHICH THE GUYS ON THE BIG BANG THEORY ARE DIFFERENT FROM REAL-LIFE PHYSICISTS
- Real physicists are not incapable of interaction with the opposite sex. Although this quirk provides the driving premise of the show, let's look at the track record of some of the physics Elder Gods, shall we? Einstein, Bohr, Oppenheimer, Swinger, Dirac, Schrodinger, Fermi. Married. Yep, all of 'em. Einstein was married twice (the second time to his cousin - hawt!). Neils Bohr was a mountain climber and played football and had six children with his wife Margrethe, one of whom won the Nobel Prize just like his dad. Oppenheimer was married and had a squeeze on the side who killed herself when he broke it off. Julian Schwinger - pretty much the poster boy for Nerd Power - was married and drove a Cadillac (for you kids, that's what a "Lexis" was called back in the 50's). Dirac - the introvert's introvert - married Eugene Wigner's sister (the sample of their awkward love letters that Graham Farmelo includes in his recent biography of Dirac makes LabKitty sound like Smoove B). When Schrodinger won the Nobel in 1933, he took his wife to the ceremony and left his (pregnant) mistress at home. And if you think hot chicks don't dig nerds, we've got two words for you: Laura Fermi.
- Real physicists (and the science world in general) are not enamored with string theory. Some of us go days, weeks, or our entire career without thinking about it. String theory seems to be Hollywood's latest darling. Before that, the go-to technobabble was Chaos Theory (Jurassic Park, Butterfly effect, Dasavatharam) or General Relativity (Contact, Event Horizon, Sound of Thunder) or tachyons (Prince of Darkness, any Star Trek episode) or atomic mutant everything (Godzilla, Gamera, Earth versus Soup). Hey! Hollywood! Knock if off! Next time you need some accurate sciencey-sounding dialog you give us a call. Capice?
- Real physicists do not have swank apartments anywhere close enough to Los Angeles to be considered "living in LA." What, the broken elevator is supposed to shout "affordable building" ? Affordable apartment buildings in LA have dead hobos in the lobby. The only way anyone living on an academic's salary (or Penny, come to think of it) could afford that stylin' pad and not require a plane to get to work would be if they split the place with five people or sold drugs in the parking lot.
- Real physicists don't eat in the cafeteria.You either eat a) in your office or b) in your lab. You eat in your office if you're holding office hours so you can condescendingly wave your sammich at students while they hatch their Machiavellian schemes to obtain points on the last exam. And you eat in your lab to reduce the possibility of stuff blowing up. As a bonus, eating in your lab makes a mockery of the university Safety Officer, who is the only person faculty despise more than each other.
- Real physicists do not spend evenings playing WoW, Second Life, or Halo, or rant on the internet regarding the inaccuracies of fictional physicists from TV shows. Sheesh.
We've got the ball rolling, but there's much more ahead. Perhaps this is the perfect time to go get yourself some whiskey and S'mores, and a rockin' LabKitty mug for dunkin'.
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The Big Bang Theory Season 3 - Hey! Wait! We got some new complaints!
W00t! We finally made it to Season 3! (what can we say? We're children of Netflix). This means we can add S3 episode-specific whining to our general observations observed above. Season 3 parity violations include the following:
- The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation (S3/E1): Sheldon cannot resign then simply pop back in for his old job when he changes his mind. These days you can't swing a dead cat without hitting an unemployed postdoc, bred by the thousands by a higher education machine that provides no place for them to go. If a faculty member were to resign, his/her seat would be filled forever and irrevocably by the close of business day. Heck, these days you can't take a long lunch without returning to find strangers in your office with measuring tapes and carpet samples.
- The Jiminy Conjecture (S3/E2): Lewis Black's entomologist character cannot be forced out of the university simply because they want his lab space. One word: tenure. Actually, two words: tenure and lawsuit. If the character is indeed a world-famous entomologist senior faculty member, he surely has tenure, which means he gets a paycheck and lab space regardless of whether he is vibrant and productive, jaded and phoning-it-in, or living in an iron lung and being fed jello by a graduate student. As a result of the tenure system, you can't swing a dead cat these days without hitting an unemployed postdoc, bred by the thousands by a higher education machine that provides no place for them to go. We may have mentioned this already.
- The Pirate Solution (S3/E4): Raj is an astrophysicist. Sheldon is a theoretical physicist. Suggesting that Raj would be useful to Sheldon as a co-worker simply because both are physicists is like saying a hooker would be useful to a mechanic because they both work on cars.
- The Plimpton Stimulation (S3/E21): The TBBT writers display here a fundamental misunderstanding of academia. Think: cats, not dogs. As far as academics are concerned, other academics are the people who shredded your publications and got your grant applications rejected via anonymous review. They are the reason you didn't get tenure; they are the bastards who are squatting on lab space that is rightfully yours. University faculty basically long for the day when academia operates like that alternate Star Trek universe with evil goatee Spock, where you advance by killing whomever is in your way. So the only reason Sheldon would have permitted Plimpton to stay with them would have been to facilitate disposing of her body, and the only reason Leonard would have a copy of Plimpton's book would be to stab her picture on the back cover in the eyes with voodoo pins.
- The Staircase Implementation (S3/E22): We have now established that the elevator in the apartment building was rendered non-functional approximately seven years prior. If we may channel our inner Sheldon (or outer Sheldon, as it were) it's entirely unlikely that the elevator would remain unserviceable for this entire period as it is a clear violation of the American with Disabilities act of 1990. The ADA guidelines specify that unless your facility is less than three stories tall or has fewer than 3000 square feet per floor, your elevators must conform to the ADA accessibility guidelines (ADAAG) based on the 1961 edition of ANSI A117 Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities code. Requirements include:
- Call buttons that are a minimum of 0.75 inches in diameter
- Braille plates next to buttons and at entrance jambs
- A cab large enough to accommodate a wheelchair and a 360-degree turn
- Elevator must, you know, actually go up and down
A Cautionary Tale
We must admit Season 3 has left us uneasy, as if the writing began to change at about the halfway point. The guys unknowingly eat hash cookies? Sheldon and Leonard in a ball tank? Drunk Sheldon? Plimpton turns out to be a sex kitten? The audience going WOOO? Really TBBT? You're really resorting to these hackneyed sitcom devices? Not to mention a pervasive lechery that seems to be consuming the episodes, whereas in the first two seasons it seemed to be a little more playful. We're not offended by sex jokes - we're not prudes by any stretch of the imagination - but we are offended by lazy writing. If we want to see a bunch of lecherous guys ape their way through unfunny jokes we'll watch C-SPAN.
We'll revisit this when Season 4 makes it to Netflix, crossing our fingers that these missteps do not portend a more ominous decline. For now, we shall leave you with this cautionary Polaroid.
The Big Bang Theory Season 4
More Fodder for our Critical Acumen
W00t! We finally got around to watching Season 4! (What can we say? MIT released all of Herb Gross' calculus lectures on iTunes so we've been kinda busy).
Anyhoo, we are now in a position to evaluate our Season 3 shark-jumping concerns. Long story short: compared to S3, the highs in S4 are higher and the lows are lower. In other words, the show's mean is unchanged but the variance has increased. (Ha! Little joke there for the nerds.) Still, we were pleasantly surprised.
The bright spot of S4 is the introduction of neurobiologist and Sheldon's not-girlfriend Amy Farrah Fowler (henceforth: AFF) played by the delightful Mayim Bialik (TV's Blossom!). AFF is probably the most socially dysfunctional character on the show, and that's saying something. Our experience is that folks in the biological sciences are generally better-adjusted socially, or at least better-adjusted than physicists. Although the neurobiologists we know do have an unnerving habit of eating lunch while simultaneously digging though some Lovecraftian pile of brain-themed experimental goop.
Aside: Mayim Bialik actually has a Ph.D. in Neuroscience. It's nice to see someone from the rough trade doing something productive in the real world for a change.
The introduction of AFF provides some much-needed balance to the male-heavy cast, and offers ample opportunity for awkward girl talk among AFF, Penny, and Bernadette (Howard's squeak toy cum fiancée played by wonderful Melissa Rauch). Apparently the writers have just been full-to-bursting with ovulation and shoe humor all these years. Go figure.
Aside: Melissa Rauch doesn't really talk that way IRL.
High-profile S4 cameos include Katee Sackhoff, George Takei, Steve Wozniak, Levar Burton, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Brian Greene. They also scored Eliza Dushku, Keith Carradine and Jessica Walter for guest episodes. Kudos to TBBT for becoming the next big thing on TV that they can command this sort of talent. Fortunately, these spots were mostly well done - we remind you that the Special Guest Star Episode is a classic shark-jump maneuver, right up there with They Did It and It Was All A Dream. That being said, it would be nice to see Jessica Walter cast in parts other than variations on Lucille Bluth - the woman won a Golden Globe, fer Cat's sake.
Aside: Katee Sackhoff doesn't seem to be getting much work after BSG. What's up with that? Are nerds still blaming her for how Ron Moore ended the series? Shame on you, nerds.
Lastly, S4 brings the return of Raj's sister Priya (played by the stunningly-gorgeous Aarti Mann) for another go-round with Leonard. You know, we can't help but notice that for a comic-book reading, Star Trek quoting, Magic:The Gathering-playing, asthmatic nerd physicist, Leonard's life is not really the sexual wasteland one might expect. Big bang, indeed.
Let's see, what can we nitpick in Season 4 to maintain our nerd cred...
- The Apology Insufficiency: FBI agents do not, as a rule, look like Eliza Dushku. Don't ask.
- The Benefactor Factor: While a two-photon microscope is an actual thing and they're expensive, they're not quite so expensive that you would need to schmooze big-shot university donors to buy one. That's more on the level of an fMRI facility or a cyclotron or one of those ginormous centrifuges used to model earthen dams (like this 400 g-ton monster at UCB. Yikes, if this thing ever tears loose from its foundations, it just might hurl Boulder back to the real world. But we kid the hippies).
- The Cohabitation Formulation: AFF is not going to be able to localize the region of Penny's brain that is active when she cries using scalp EEG. The spatial resolution of such technology is simply insufficient to resolve the limbic structures that likely participate in the response. Such localization is possible, but the necessary equipment would barely fit inside Penny's apartment. Of course, if she was willing to agree to a more invasive procedure the equipment gets much smaller, albeit inviting complications like encephalitis and law enforcement.
Lastly, as a general S4 note, the only way a gorgeous Indian lawyer would hook up with a nerd like Leonard was if she was having green card problems. Then again, maybe Priya is just using Leonard to cover her bases in case she ever needs an Amicus brief on something a lawyer wouldn't understand, like, say, polynomials or ethics. (Ha! We kid the lawyers. Please don't sue us.)
Alas, S4 wasn't without its missteps. The less said about Wolowicz's robot or Sheldon's brussels sprout experiment the better. We'll just pretend those episodes didn't happen (what is this? Married with Children?). We'll also overlook Raj's attempt to treat his social anxiety using experimental medication that causes him to take his clothes off. That concept threatened to break loose from the lab and become a subplot, but for now it seems to have been killed off. We remain, as always, cautiously optimistic.
Oh, and by the way, AUTOTROPHS DON'T DROOL!!1!! We probably should have mentioned this before.
The Big Bang Theory Season 5 (and beyond)
The Winner of our Discontent
To keep tabs on the hurried youth of today, LabKitty lurks on a certain pop-culture website which shall remain nameless (The name rhymes with a small, slender Californian fish that swarms onto beaches at night to spawn. The eggs are buried in the sand, and the young fish are swept out to sea on the following spring tide.) One thing we have discovered is the hurried youth of today hate TBBT. That in itself is not surprising; they hate everything (well, everything except Arrested Development, Breaking Bad, Community, Firefly, and The Wire. Stephen King also gets a lifetime pass, even though it's been literally several hours since he published a new novel). In their hipster universe, Shakespeare was a hack, Eddie Van Halen can't play guitar, and [ random gorgeous actress ] isn't really that attractive.
Oh to be 22 and understand everything about the world again.
But the occasionally cogent of their brood voice a complaint about TBBT that we cannot refute (no doubt as they comb Hot Pocket crumbs out of their neckbeards): TBBT morphed from being a comedy about smart people into being a sitcom about nerds. It is true: ordinary sitcom tropes are consuming much of the action here in S5. Wedding preparations. Sex jokes. Long distance relationships. Sex jokes. Overbearing Jewish mothers. Comic book stores. Sex jokes. Even more troubling is that Sheldon has transformed from the bizarre albeit world-class intellect of previous seasons into more of an annoying man-child. Such scripts do not require physicists to animate. Erkel will do.
Tellingly, our list of science complaints in S5 is rather curt compared to previous seasons. Our post-Netflix-marathon crib notes contained only the following:
- The Wiggly Finger Catalyst (S5/E4): It's not "Higgs boson particle." Stop saying "Higgs boson particle." It's either "Higgs boson" or "Higgs particle."
- The Vacation Solution (S5/E16): Einstein did not "fail math." Ever. (It's disconcerting how persistent this myth remains. While it's true many teachers had a poor opinion of Albert in his youth, they didn't dislike him because he was a poor student, they disliked him because he was a smart-ass.) Also, Sheldon introduced his example locus ceruleus fat joke using id est when he should have used exempli gratia. Also, Sheldon won't find the locus ceruleus in the cerebral hemispheres Amy is working on regardless of how big it is because the locus ceruleus is in the brainstem.
- The Rothman Disintegration (S5/E17): Sheldon and Kripke would not have cause to fight over Professor Rothman's office after he was forced to retire because faculty cannot be forced to retire. See our discussion of tenure in The Jiminy Conjecture above (sheesh, it's almost like Chuck Lorre doesn't read LabKitty). Also, our guys would never in a million years defer to the university president to resolve their dispute. Clearly, the TBBT writers have forgotten the Academic's Creed.
From this one might conclude we are SHAKING WITH RAGE as they used to say in Yahoo comments (and perhaps still do. HOW ARE BABBIES MADE? Heh, heh). Meh, not so much. Season 5 made us make this face :D often enough and that's really all we ask (fer Cat's sake, hipsters, it's just a TV show. If you're looking for a deconstruction of existentialist ennui, go read Sartre).
Mostly, S5 carries on the trajectory of S4. Amy Farrah Fowler is still the high-point, with her creepy BFF crush on Penny made glorious by Mayim Bialik's superb comedic timing (the giant painting in E17 is our favorite joke of the show). Apparently some people are getting skeeved-out by the Amy-slash-Penny vibe (and we do mean slash) but we refuse to view Amy's adulation as anything but non-sexual -- the wallflower finally getting to hang out with the prom queen and going predictably nutzo as a result. As grandaddy used to say, skeevy is in the mind of the beholder. Right before they hung him (a story for another time).
The show also went all the way to the guest-star power rail in S5, scoring appearances from Brent Spiner, (the voice of) Leonard Nimoy, real astronaut Mike Massimino, and of course the ne plus ultra of nerds: Stephen Hawking (or as Penny put it: the wheelchair dude who invented time). About they only way the show could top this roster next season is if LabKitty makes an appearance. (Fair warning: we don't work cheap. And our creative demands include M&Ms ad libitum and sorted by color.)
On the downside, the writers are finding less and less for Raj to do, and Wolowitz's pervasive lechery continues to be grating. Additionally, his NASA subplot seemed to us a bit hollow. There is indeed a breed of nerd that would be up for spaceflight (heck, one of the original requirements for astronauts was an engineering degree), but Howard Wolowitz ain't it.
Finally, alas, the studio audience has grown even more obnoxious in S5. A lively crowd is nice and all, but one suspects Jim Parsons or Kaley Cuoco could stand on stage and read the phone book and these people would go "woo." If we wanted to suffer through drooling fanboys drowning out the show, we'd watch The Colbert Report.
Dear studio audiences,
IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU.
The Big Bang Theory copyright CBS Broadcasting, Inc. Inclusion here is claimed as fair use under US copyright law, as these images appear as part of a discussion of the work in question.