The Big Bang Theory

Guest post by Don Lincoln

The Big Bang Theory is a fun show. It follows the lives of four geeky and quirky scientists who are too improbable to be true. Howard is an engineer and lives with his overbearing mother. Raj is an astrophysicist who is afraid to talk to girls. Sheldon is a theoretical physicist and socially dysfunctional. Leonard is the most normal of the four and is, of course an experimental physicist. This makes perfect sense, as we experimenters tend to be on the normal end of the spectrum.

This is not to say that there aren’t some of us actual scientists who are idiosyncratic. For instance, every physicist I know claims to know someone like Sheldon. (Of course, nobody I knows is willing to own up to being the Sheldon-like person.)

While the show is about scientists, it is very little about science itself. There is a danger in that, in that it gives non-scientists a skewed idea of the life of scientists. In fact, one of my main complaints about the show is the degree to which it reinforces the idea of the scientist as a socially-inept geek. The show also depicts its women characters in stereotypical ways, with Penny, the shapely, but dumb, and socially-savvy blonde; Amy, the sexually frustrated female counterpart to the clueless Sheldon; and Bernadette, the very pretty microbiologist with an annoying voice.

Of course, none of these liberties with stereotypes means that the show isn’t funny. It’s frequently a stitch. It’s just not any more realistic than, say Sex in the City or any of the various CSI shows.

With all that in mind, one can watch episodes with a knowing eye and appreciate the writers’ wit. In “The Codpiece Topology,” for example, the episode in which Leonard and his then-girlfriend Leslie break up over their positions on quantum gravity: superstrings or loop quantum gravity? The disagreement is a deal breaker for Leslie. “How we will raise the children?,” she cries. While there are no doubt passionate advocates of both approaches to bridging gravity and quantum mechanics, I am unaware of any actual relationships that have foundered over the divide.

The depiction of the hotel rooms at CERN (complete with the Matterhorn in the window) is a little more elegant than the reality. (I’ve stayed in college dorms which are more comfortable.) But the scientific energy that surrounds CERN makes any accommodations, no matter how Spartan, totally worth it.

Then there is the episode “The Large Hadron Collision,” in which Leonard is invited to go to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and is allowed to bring a companion. The story revolves around who he should bring: his girlfriend Penny or his roommate Sheldon. Visiting CERN is depicted as being an honor, like being asked to give an invited talk at a prestigious conference or institute. In fact, for someone like Leonard, visiting CERN should be rather common. My own experimental physicist postdocs go there several times a year. Without a doubt, CERN is a scientifically-intoxicating place, but unusual it is not. One particularly funny part of the episode involves the hotel room in which Leonard will stay during his visit. The fiction is quite a bit different from the reality, as you can see in the attached picture in which I show both the room from the episode and my own room at the CERN hostel. (Although I do think the CERN management should consider making some changes . . . a four poster bed would be just lovely.)

The show The Big Bang Theory is a smashing success and its success hinges on having good writers and funny actors with excellent chemistry. Just realize that the characters really are caricatures of scientists. There are no Sheldons in physics. Well . . . except for that guy a couple of doors down . . .


Don Lincoln is a senior scientist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and an adjunct professor of physics at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of The Large Hadron Collider: The Extraordinary Story of the Higgs Boson and Other Stuff That Will Blow Your Mind, Alien Universe: Extraterrestrials in Our Minds and in the Cosmos, and The Quantum Frontier: The Large Hadron Collider, all published by Johns Hopkins.