It’s been quite a while since I last made a contribution to Common Ground. For those of you who care to know, I have been very busy over the past several months doing research, teaching, and occasionally traveling to certain international locations. While I’ve already got plans to do more of the same—now that things have finally settled down a bit—I’m now in position to compose some random thoughts on something “useful” to discuss. With that, I hope to make several new contributions to Common Ground in the near future.
For now, though, I have a much more “tongue-in-cheek” entry to give you, with an important moral at the end. If nothing else, I hope it at least puts a smile on your face!
I happened to see an old episode of “The Big Bang Theory” on TV some weeks ago that caught my attention in more ways than one. For those of you who have no idea what this show’s all about, it’s a very funny TV sitcom about two smart and geeky physicists from Caltech named Dr. Leonard Hofstadter and Dr. Sheldon Cooper, along with their equally geeky Caltech friends, an astrophysicist from India named Dr. Raj Koothrappali and his Jewish best friend, an aerospace engineer named Mr. Howard Wolowitz. I should note that, as the only character among the four without a Ph.D., Howard is the recipient of much comedic torment from the other three geeks, a recurring theme on the show.
You can find out more about the show by going to this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Big_Bang_Theory
Leonard and Sheldon live across the hall from Penny, an attractive (that is, a “normal” and decidedly “non-geeky”) waitress, who despite the “cultural differences” between her and Leonard, was at one time his girlfriend. As the only one of the five main characters without an advanced degree in science or engineering—or a degree in anything, for that matter—Penny is constantly made fun of by the multi-lettered Sheldon for comedic effect, another recurring theme.
All five of the main characters hang out together, and the four geeks within the group revel in praise of stereotypical “geek culture,” with much of the comedy centered around science mishaps, Star Trek and Star Wars, video games and comic books, the lack of social graces (in the case of Sheldon) or the inability to speak to women (in the case of Raj), etc., etc., etc…
To the credit of the show’s creators, they also wrote in a number of highly educated (and equally geeky) women who appear as recurring characters on the show. (As a side note, since the Baha’i Faith strongly advocates for the equality between women and men, this means that a woman has as much right to be a geek as any man!) In fact, this blog is mostly about an episode involving one of these characters, a Caltech physicist named Dr. Leslie Winkle. It so happens that Leslie and Sheldon are intellectual rivals who deeply dislike each other for many reasons, but mostly because Leslie is an advocate of Loop Quantum Gravity (LQG) as the explanation of the subatomic nature of gravity, while Sheldon is an expert on String Theory (ST)—the so-called “theory of everything”. The two passionately dispute the others’ ideas and view each other as completely wrong and stupid for holding onto their particular beliefs.
In this contest, Leslie holds her own, making verbal fun of Sheldon, calling him a “dumbass” and other put-downs, oftentimes besting him in the battle of wits and getting lots of laughs at his expense.
Now that I’ve set the stage, let me briefly explain the episode that got me inspired to write this blog. It goes like this: Sometime after Leonard and Penny break up, Leonard decides to pursue a relationship with Leslie, who is known to cycle through many men and is very streetwise about the dating scene. In fact, when Leonard finally decides to ask her out, she agree,s but immediately sets him straight on what they’ll do or not do, where they’ll go or not go, what the timeline is for how their relationship will evolve over days to months to years from now, etc., etc., etc….
When Sheldon eventually finds out about Leonard’s interest in Leslie, not surprisingly he strongly objects, stating fervently that it will ruin their relationship as roommates if Leonard starts dating his “arch-enemy.” The climax comes when the three of them are together in Leonard and Sheldon’s apartment, with Sheldon and Leslie arguing at full throttle over the merits and weaknesses of ST and LQG, each opining that the other’s theory has “no evidence” to justify it, each criticizing the other theory’s claims about black hole entropy, etc. Poor Leonard is caught in the middle between his roommate and his new girlfriend. Finally, Sheldon and Leslie confront Leonard and force him to choose between the two of them on which theory is right: ST or LQG.
After squirming for a few seconds, Leonard finally decides to follow his conscience. He gives a completely honest but sheepish answer: “I guess I’d rather have my theories ‘stringy’ than ‘loopy.’”
Sheldon naturally beams great satisfaction that Leonard chose him over his arch-rival; Leslie, not surprisingly, gets very angry and asks Leonard: “And how are we supposed to raise our children!?” She then storms out in a huff.
Sheldon, while still clearly aglow from his victory over Leslie, nonetheless tries to console Leonard—in his uniquely Sheldon-like way, of course—that he’s made the right choice. Clearly that plan goes nowhere, which ends the episode.
There are a couple of really important points I want to share about “The Big Bang Theory”—and this episode in particular—that really stand out for me. First, from my standpoint as a board-certified geek, the creators and writers did a really good job of capturing both the technical nuances between ST and LQG and the professional rivalry that exists between the proponents of these two theories, all within one comedic scene. This is a major accomplishment of creative writing and deserves high praise.
The writers cleverly made a second point in showing the rivalry between Sheldon and Leslie. They exaggerated it a bit for effect but, as someone who’s been an eyewitness to really unprofessional conduct from advocates of ST and LQG, I can confirm that this rivalry is definitely grounded in truth. I have seen advocates of these theories openly attack each other at conferences, on blogs, and other public and private media. In the TV re-enactment of one such argument, we see two intelligent and well-educated characters who practice “good science” zealously and passionately argue their beliefs in physical theories with “no evidence” to back them up—to the point of calling the other “stupid” for being so clearly wrong.
When Leslie asks how children should be raised from within a “mixed marriage” between ST and LQG people, she leads me to raise my own questions to anyone who cares to think about the issue this way:
Zealous and destructive belief in ideas without evidence? Now where have I heard that before? It’s almost as if they were arguing about . . . religion.
I wonder . . . . .