About the Big Bang Theory (and I mean the TV show, not the theory)

About the Big Bang Theory (and I mean the TV show, not the theory)

Albert E+

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 . . . . .

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10 thoughts on “About the Big Bang Theory (and I mean the TV show, not the theory)

  1. Your creative muse is a companion that appeals to the subliminal nature of your audience with resonate words. Gene Roddenberry’s Star-Trek scripts for the original series stirred the prophetic imagination in the in the wrong genre of Science-Fiction. But real people have titles that carry authorative weight over the commonplace attitudes about religion and marriage that seem today to be biologic urges and spiritual survival in the afterlife; resisting change that could disturb slumbering intellectual capacities. Perhaps they are looking for the orphan “purpose” both in science and religion.

    1. Curious about the use of the phrase “the wrong genre of Science-Fiction”.

      It seems to me (as a Baha’i science fiction writer) that it is precisely the right genre in which to ask questions such as “What makes us human?”

      In fact, that’s really the question much of my SF stories—especially the first contact ones—addresses directly.

      SF is also the “right” genre in which to consider the harmony of science and religion.

  2. And yet most mass forms of SF don’t take much about religion seriously while they do take meaning seriously. Star Trek openly scoffs at it as occasionally useful often abused. Babylon 5 respected a realistic diversity of religion but most of it turned out to have almost nothing to do with the real big picture except for various genetic manipulations by higher species to have us on their good side. Firefly admired a strength of character of the religious but still made no issue of how it matters to actual civilization. Dune covers it in some depth because of a cultural milieu but ultimately the main character fails to divert the course of history and instead becomes a tool of that history – perhaps closest to the truth – except that it fails to see any pattern of recurrence and rejuvenation across that self-same history. (these being some of the biggest franchises I can think of.)

    1. Very interesting thoughts.

      I often find myself looking to Star Trek as an idea of what humanity could be. They live in an essential garden of Eden (well, in the Next Gen series). On Earth there’s no crime, poverty, environmental problems. The arts are flourishing. Science is advancing. No one needs to work at all to live, but people still are motivated to strive for excellence. Sure, there are episodes where you see some level of discontent with the “Star Fleet” types, but it’s generally a rosy picture.

      Their treatment of religion is, as you’ve pointed out, pretty stuck within a certain limiting perspective. It’s much like the early 1900s when religion was viewed as acceptable but not necessary. It’s a humanistic approach, one that is nice, but ultimately, perhaps a bit simple.

      Maybe this is because they are “mass forms” and must cater to the PC, certain lobbies, the views of the network people…

      Anyway, I liked what you had to say.

      1. Of course, you realize that Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry had a couple of Baha’i staff writers. From them, he got the Vulcan maxim: “Unity in diversity.”

        It’s true that SF as a genre has given religion short shrift. Some SF writers assume that religion and SF and science don’t mix, some SF fans assume SF writers must not believe in God. Yet, there are religion panels at every SF convention I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been on a few of them myself. Two most memorable: 1995 Baycon in which the atheist member of the panel assumed everyone else in the room was an atheist and fired off a snide comment about religion. Alas, he sat at on a panel that included a Baha’i, a Russian Orthodox and a Catholic priest—SF writers all.

        Then this year at Baycon, I was seated next to an atheist who began the “Spaghetti Monster” panel by stating, “If you think that all religion is irrational superstition that no intelligent person would believe, you’re wrong. And that’s not what this panel is about.” He admitted that his greatest hero was a Catholic priest who ran a halfway house for at risk youth. I admitted that two of mine were scientists who were avowed atheists—Scott Atran and Neil deGrasse Tyson. I got more applause than he did. 🙂

        The enemy, my new hero (a philosophy professor at Berkeley) said, was dogmatism and atheists, he told our audience are just as capable of dogmatism as religious folk.

        And that puts me in mind of another aphorism: When you ASSUME you make an ASS of U and ME.

  3. I am somewhere in between Penny and Leslie (does that make me normal? well what is normal anyway?).

    I just want to say I loved your blog piece – Baha’i and Big Bang Theory – two things I love.

    Also since you are interested in science and religion – there’s a book by Prabhupada (the founder of the Hare Krishna’s) called “Life Comes from Life” where he attempts to tell of the spiritual explanation for scientific theories. I thought it was a really good read.

    Now if you could please investigate the science of finding a perfect partner – and let me know – thanks.

    Glenda 🙂

    1. Hi, Glenda:

      Thanks very much for taking a liking to my blog entry. I like your almost throwaway question about what it means to be “normal anyway.” If human beings are created in God’s image with a virtually uncountable number of perspectives on what they like or dislike, etc., then from taking a poll to survey what is considered “most popular,” then that may be an reasonable definition of what’s “normal.” If, however, “normal” is meant to imply “acceptable,” then a value judgement is automatically embedded within that definition. In that case, I can see serious problems come up without a God-concept as the “perfect” standard to judge against because otherwise “normal” then gets defined by groups of human beings who happen to hold the most popular viewpoints on a given day. As they themselves act imperfectly, it follows that an imperfect standard is getting used to judge “normal” conduct or behavior, which makes no sense to me, especially given examples of “scientific” justifications for racism, for example, that happened not that long ago. But I digress! 😉

      I happen to have a copy of “Life Comes from Life” on my bookshelf. It’s been many years since I’ve looked at it, but I may take a glance at it whenever I can make the time to do that.

      Finally, about “the science of finding a perfect partner,” I’m afraid that task is well above my pay grade! All I can say here is to wish you good luck! 😉

      Albert E+

  4. Musze sie wam pochwalić w końcu zrzucilam wage – 5 kilogramów.
    Przeszukalam chyba caly polski internet zeby znalezc
    cos na odchudzanie i znalazlam. Wygoglujcie sobie: xxally radzi jak szybko schudnąć

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