Awkward Geeks: The Big Bang Theory and the Popular Image of Scientists

by Heather Ryan

I’m a hopeless physics geek, so when I saw an ad on the side of a bus showing two men and a blonde woman standing in front of a blackboard full of physics equations, advertising a sitcom called The Big Bang Theory on CBS, I was ecstatic. I had never before seen science be the focus of a show on primetime, yet there was accurate theoretical physics, on the side of the bus, forming the backdrop of this ad. The subtitle “Smart is the New Sexy,” surprised me too.  I can tell you, geeks are not generally considered alpha males. The popular perception of scientists today is that they’re socially awkward, unable to attract the opposite sex, and so consumed in their work that they lose touch with reality. Of course, being surrounded by scientists all the time, I know that this is not really the case. I wondered if The Big Bang Theory would challenge or reinforce this stereotype.

The Big Bang Theory, which has 30-minute episodes and premiered in the Fall of 2007, derives its humor from the clash of the awkward geeks with the outside world. A pretty blonde-haired waitress named Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moves into the apartment next door to Caltech theoretical physicists Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons), and when Leonard finds himself hopelessly attracted to her, hilarious situations ensue. The protagonist Leonard is awkward but sweet, while the breakout character, his roommate Sheldon, is overly intellectual and estranged from most social norms. Sheldon is simultaneously the oddest and most interesting character of the show. He shows signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, organizing his breakfast cereals according to fiber content and insisting that no one else sit in his special spot on the couch, which he rationalizes this way:

In the winter that seat is close enough to the radiator to remain warm and yet not so close as to cause perspiration. In the summer it’s directly in the path of a cross breeze created by opening windows there (pointing), and there (pointing again). It faces the television at an angle that is neither direct, thus discouraging conversation, nor so far wide as to create a parallax distortion. I could go on, but … I think I’ve made my point.

It’s a challenge for Sheldon to understand social cues, resulting in Leonard at one point holding up a “sarcasm” sign for Sheldon in desperation when Penny is enraged with him for breaking into her apartment to satisfy his neurotic compulsion to clean it. In the first episode they pronounce “a combined IQ of 360” and Sheldon lays claim to 212 friends on MySpace—though he has not met any of them (which is the “beauty of it,” Sheldon explains). Many other such antics give depth to Sheldon’s eccentric and hilarious character.

Additionally, the main characters Leonard and Sheldon have two friends that play major roles: Howard Wolowitz, an engineer and an overtly sexual ladies’ man who is in his 30s but still lives with his mother, and Rajesh Koothrappali, an astrophysicist who goes mute in the presence of women. In a Wall Street Journal interview, one of the producer-directors, Chuck Lorre, said that the characters he created are “brilliant in how their minds work, but inept in ways the normal civilian takes for granted, which is hopefully where we mine a lot of comedy.” Bill Prady, the other producer-director, told the Wall Street Journal: “Everyone goes through life with the sense that somebody else has it all figured out. The point of these characters is, you can be the smartest people in the world and you’re still an outsider…The essence of comedy is pain.” Admittedly, it is sometimes a bit painful to watch the geeks make complete fools of themselves—such as when Penny asks Leonard and Sheldon to retrieve her TV set from her ex-boyfriend’s house and they return home with neither the TV set nor their pants.

The series is unusually scientifically accurate, often featuring equation-filled whiteboards in the background that the producers hired UCLA physicist David Salzberg to write. Much of the banter back and forth among Leonard and Sheldon has to do with some obscure scientific debate. When Leonard starts dating Leslie Winkle, a colleague experimental physicist from the lab, she breaks up with him when he doesn’t support her in an argument she had with Sheldon over the relative merits of loop quantum gravity over string theory. These are very advanced concepts, hotly debated in the physics community, and not at all easy for anyone outside the field to understand. Yet there they are on TV, debated with accuracy.  Season 2, Episode 17, “The Terminator Decoupling,” featured physicist George Smoot, who won the Nobel Prize for originating the actual theory of the Big Bang and the beginning of the universe. (Smoot himself went to MIT, but it was his cousin, Oliver Smoot, who coined the Smoot as a unit of measure when for a fraternity prank he measured the length of the Harvard Bridge with his own height—and later in life became head of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI)—according to his biography on the ANSI site.) In the show, Smoot gave a lecture at a fictional physics symposium. Smoot had contacted Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady himself, introduced himself as a fan, and offered his help. It’s a testament to the good-natured portrayal of geeks in the show that such a prominent figure in the scientific community would himself seek out involvement in the series.

I, as a physics student, see every day that the scientists that surround me are a good-natured and congenial type; the vast majority of them, one might say, are completely normal people.  The Big Bang Theory derives its hilarity from stereotypes of scientists as awkward and too absorbed in their work the outside world, which is not accurate. Just how seriously does the public take these stereotypes? To answer this question, I looked at a study by the National Science Foundation (NSF), in which children and teens discussed their perception of science and technology. The NSF administered the “Draw a Scientist Test,” in which elementary and high school students were asked to draw their impressions of scientists. Teachers then tallied common traits in the drawings and sent back results. According to the results of this study, by the time children are in the second grade they have already formed their opinion of the stereotypical scientist, complete with crazy hair and bubbling chemicals in hand. This impression doesn’t change throughout life; even college students who were given this exam drew the same kind of image! In a 2001 NSF study, 20% of schoolchildren agreed with the statement “scientists do not get as much fun out of life as other people do.” A quarter agreed that scientists were often odd and peculiar people, and a third said they thought that scientists have few interests apart from their work. 53 percent of respondents to the 2001 NSF survey agreed that “scientific work is dangerous.”

However, there are many positive opinions of science as well. 82 percent of parents said that they would approve of their son’s or daughter’s decision to go into science. In the 2001 NSF study, 96 percent of schoolchildren agreed that “scientists are helping to solve challenging problems” and 86 percent agreed that “scientific researchers are dedicated people who work for the good of humanity.” Science was confirmed to be perceived as a high-prestige profession, and in 2000, 41 percent of adults surveyed by the NSF said they had a high degree of confidence in the leadership of the scientific community. The study shows that in the public’s eyes, a scientist is a secluded, odd person, but someone who does important work for society. This is quite in line with how the characters in The Big Bang Theory are scripted.

The stereotypical depiction of the scientists in the sitcom has made some blogs go so far as to call the show anti-intellectual. But I disagree with this claim. The characters are as loveable as they are funny, and it’s hard not to have sympathy for them at least some of the time. The Big Bang Theory may not be entirely realistic, but at least it brings discussions of science to primetime, and exposes the public to topics that they might otherwise never hear about. Despite perpetuating stereotypes, the sitcom is good-natured, and may even inspire young viewers to become as intelligent and influential as the characters they see.

Works Cited:

American National Standards Institute, Speakers Bureau: “Oliver R. Smoot, Immediate Past Chairman.” Accessed June 30, 2011. (http://www.ansi.org/other_services/speakers_bureau/smoot.aspx?menuid=10)

Jurgensen, John. “A Nerdy Comedy’s Winning Formula.” The Wall Street Journal. Dec. 12, 2008. Accessed April 6, 2011. (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122904206389400209.html#printMode)

National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics. “Science and Engineering Indicators–2002.” April, 2002. Accessed April 6, 2011. (http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind02/c7/c7s1.htm)


Heather Ryan is a member of MIT’s class of 2014, intending to major in
physics. Heather has a penchant for cats, sitcoms, and reading.
Writing has become her favorite method of deeply understanding a
subject, since, like when teaching, one must become an expert in the
topic to be able to write about it with conviction and authority.

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