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The Sciences

Is "Big Bang Theory" Bad for Science?

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I know that many scientists (and at least one science blogger) really like the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory. The show is well-written and acted, has a half dozen funny one-liners per episode, and delivers a weekly helping of science and nerd culture in-jokes. In a recent episode, Howard the NASA scientist erased several hours of data from the Mars Rover after inviting a woman he had met in a bar to come back to his office and drive it. His pick up line: "Have you ever driven a car .... on Mars?" Funny stuff and mostly harmless, right? No. Not right. After watching several episodes on a recent cross-country flight, I've concluded that this show is bad for American Science. And here's why: Three of the four main characters are scientists with limited romantic prospects. Howard lives with his mother and inhabits an imaginary world where his Beatles haircut makes him irresistible to women. Raj finds himself unable to speak when the nerds' sexy neighbor is in the apartment. Sheldon apparently has a sitcom version of Asperger's Syndrome. Only Johnny Galecki's character, Leonard, finds himself simultaneously able to work in physics, love comic books and successfully date women. Thus BBT reinforces the popular stereotype that scientists are social misfits (mostly male) who can't get a date. Not only is this not true (granted I work at a science magazine but most of the researchers I meet are very cool and many of them are women), but research has posited that these portrayals potentially discourage kids from pursuing science past junior high. I made this argument to Sean Carroll while I was out at Caltech last week, and his response was essentially, "Lighten up. People love these characters." Respectfully, I say that's wrong. People loved Urkel, but no one wants to be Urkel. As the creators of the dominant portrayal of scientists in American culture right now, the producers of BBT can do better. And they can start by letting Howard move out of his mom's house.

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