Sitcoms have a way of digging up the comedy potential from the most unlikely setups. Britain’s Father Ted, for instance, centered around a trio of Irish priests who lived in a parochial house on the fictional Craggy Island. It’s a cult favourite sitcom, but it hardly sounds like a recipe for hilarity, does it?
The Big Bang Theory, similarly, stars a quartet of socially inept scientists who spend their days talking in physics jargon (and spending a darn fortune in takeout, by the looks of it). Nevertheless, it too is very successful and (well, depending on who you ask) very funny.
Much of the science talk therein is lost on the audience too, that’s part of the humor. How much of it is accurate, though? Let’s take a look at some things the show got very right (and others it got very wrong).
10 ACCURATE: Those Whiteboard Equations
Speaking of The Big Bang Theory science that tends to go over the heads of casual viewers, let’s start with those classic whiteboards. It’s a bit of a running joke in the show (like Bart Simpson’s written lines on the chalkboard) that something new and complex will appear on the boards at regular intervals, but are those befuddling equations accurate?
As fans will know, Dr. David Saltzberg (a physics professor at UCLA) has worked as a consultant for the show for over a decade. He’s given scripts in progress that read (insert science here) and has to put together a scientific reference that would fit the conversation.
As for the written equations, NPR explains:
"He makes sure the whiteboards are correct. For every new episode, they're covered by a fresh scrawl of formulas dreamed up by Saltzberg and admired by physicists for their scrupulous accuracy — and occasional shoutouts to what's happening in the world of science."
9 NOT ACCURATE: The Nobel Prize Process
The Big Bang Theory being The Big Bang Theory, even the show’s episodes are named super smartly. The Confirmation Polarization, however, reveals some truly flawed logic on the part of the creators. In the episode, Sheldon and Amy’s work on their Super Asymmetry theory (more on that later) put them in the running for a Nobel Prize. There’s a whole snafu with two visiting scientists from Fermilab, who want Amy out of the picture so they can share the prize with Sheldon, and things ultimately go unresolved.
The issue is, this is nothing like how a Nobel Prize would really be pursued. Would both Caltech and Fermilab have been eligible to nominate their respective scientists? It’s unlikely. Would this very-recently-published paper of Sheldon and Amy’s, with its findings measured only once, have been enough? Absolutely not, writes Don Lincoln, Senior Scientist, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory; Adjunct Professor of Physics, University of Notre Dame.
8 ACCURATE: Amy Farrah Fowler’s PhD
It stands to reason that the brilliant Dr. Sheldon Cooper --once he eventually gave in to being in a relationship-- would choose only an equally-brilliant partner. It also stands to reason that, as we’ve seen with Dr. David Saltzberg, The Big Bang Theory can never have too much scientific knowledge on hand.
With these two things in mind, Mayim Bialik, who portrays Amy Farrah Fowler, was a huge coup for the show. Amy is a neuro-biologist while Bialik is actually a neuroscientist, having a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. As you can imagine, this is a tremendous help for the writers, who always need to know if the scientific jargon they’re trying to work with rings true.
7 NOT ACCURATE: Sheldon And The Mystery Of The Wine Glass
As much as the pernickety Dr. Sheldon Cooper would hate to admit it, nobody is perfect. You can be as picky as you like about your spot on the couch, the precise time you pour your cereal to watch Doctor Who on a Saturday morning and everything else, but you’re going to slip up sooner or later. Sheldon is still (give or take) human, and he certainly isn’t infallible. He loves to spout trivia and wax lyrical about science, but equally-picky viewers have noticed some errors in these ‘facts.’
Remember when he insisted that the note produced by somebody striking a wine glass to attract attention was a B flat? Nope, it’s actually a B.
6 ACCURATE: Galileo And The Pope’s ‘Little Misunderstanding’
As we’ve seen, then, the creators of The Big Bang Theory require a lot of help when it comes to ensuring the show’s science rings true. This is completely understandable, of course (have you seen those equations?), as blending super complex physics and humor cannot be easy.
Saltzberg, then, has quite a complicated role within the show. He attends tapings of the show in case changes are needed, and he even came up with one of Sheldon’s jokes: “A little misunderstanding? Galileo and the Pope had a little misunderstanding!”.
Galileo’s proving that the Earth orbits the Sun did not go down well with the Vatican, seeing him placed under house arrest for the last eight years of his life (he passed away in 1642, at 77). It wasn’t until 350 years later that Pope John Paul II deigned to agree with the scientist! This was one of those inspired real-world references that bridge the gap between impenetrable science and the average viewer.
5 NOT ACCURATE: The Theory Of Super Asymmetry
As we saw earlier in this rundown, Sheldon and Amy’s theory of Super Asymmetry caused a bit of a Nobel Prize snafu (and a very unrealistic one, at that). Much of this can be chalked up to the obvious fact that this still a TV show, and there’s no time to get into the long and complex real-world process of applying for the prestigious prize. Aside from that, though, there’s something else that’s a little wonky here: what exactly is Super Asymmetry, as the show portrays it? It revolved around subatomic particles called kaons, and what these particles may (or may not) do in certain theoretical situations.
Super Asymmetry, in short, is not a real theory and would have been far too much for two scientists to work on even if it was (yes, Sheldon, even if one of those scientists is you). Super Symmetry, on the other hand, is a real –and enormous—project, as Don Lincoln goes on to explain: his own team is comprised of 3,000 scientists from around the world! What would have been accomplished by the two Fermilab scientists portrayed in the show? Precious little.
4 ACCURATE: Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Snubbing Of Pluto
Ah, Pluto. The underappreciated hanger-on of the solar system. It was relegated to dwarf planet status in August 2006, and Pluto fans around the world still have some colorful things to say on the controversial matter. Sheldon, always forthright with his opinions, met astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson at Caltech in The Apology Insufficiency. He wastes no time in telling Tyson that it’s his fault that Pluto was demoted and that he doesn’t like Tyson as a result.
The Hayden Planetarium director counters that he didn’t make the decision (the International Astronomical Union voted on it), and in the end, here in the real world, they’re both right.
3 NOT ACCURATE: Howard Becoming An Astronaut
Again, this is one that needs a fair amount of suspension of disbelief. Can you sit down to watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie without pointing out that he only had to reload twice? Twice, in that whole two hours’ worth of solid shooting? If not, you’re going to have a bad time with the concept of Howard Walowitz as an astronaut.
With his long, comprehensive list of allergies and ailments, the fact that the training shattered his psyche into oblivion and the whole Fruit Loops incident, it was clear that Howard was not up to the rigors of space travel. Still, the plot called for it and it was a great source of jokes at his expense, so up he went regardless.
2 ACCURATE: Archimedes’ Eureka Moment
In season four’s The Toast Derivation, Sheldon invites some new friends (Stuart from the comic book store, Zack, Barry Kripke, and LeVar Burton) to the apartment, upset that Leonard is spending more time with Priya at Raj’s. While LeVar Burton doesn’t show up (until the end of the episode, as an added gag), Sheldon subjects the others to the famous story of Archimedes and the golden crown.
This is another of those ‘facts’ that even science newbies tend to know; the tale of water displacement and how it can be used to determine the volume of irregularly-shaped objects. Saltzberg, in his blog that explains the science behind the show, elaborates a little. He explains that gold, the densest known material on Earth in Archimedes’ time, could be substituted with certain amounts of cheaper materials like silver. Only knowledge of the scientific concept of water displacement could have saved you from being scammed.
1 NOT ACCURATE: Barry Kripke’s Helium Prank
Now, we all know how helium works. You grab a balloon, you breathe it in, you speak in a silly high voice for a moment or two to amuse yourself and that's it. It’s a fun little party trick we’re all familiar with. Apparently, though, the creators of The Big Bang Theory don’t quite know how helium works.
In The Vengeance Formulation, Sheldon appears on a radio show, and his nemesis Kripke pranks him by pumping helium into the room (with inevitable and embarrassing results). The issue here, for a scientifically-based show, is that their concentration of the gas that would be needed to have this effect is far too great.
Too great for Sheldon to survive the lack of oxygen in the room, in fact, as What Culture reports.