A show about four ‘geeky’ guys and their attractive neighbour has captured audiences around the world. Yet the story about this socially improbable group has impacted issues concerning science communication and mental health.
Sheldon, Leonard, Raj and Howard are four scientists (well, Howard is an Engineer) that work at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech). Their lives, consisting of Star Trek marathons, XBOX parties and outings to the comic book store, are thrown into disarray when Leonard befriends their new neighbour Penny, an aspiring actor who believes that Steven Hawking is, “the wheelchair dude who invented time”. Over the seasons, Penny becomes part of the guys’ social circle and begins a relationship with Leonard.
Criticisms come from those who believe that The Big Bang Theory perpetuates stereotypes of scientists (Sandpaw, 2010). Debate over whether the show has been good for science and science communication stems from the way the characters are positioned. The four scientists are ‘geeks’ and are socially awkward, suggesting a discontinuity between science and the rest of society (Sandpaw, 2010). However, the characters do have normal human experiences bridging the gap between the scientists and the audience. Every character is relatable and
Writers and editors of The Big Bang Theory have maintained a commitment to factual accuracy when communicating scientific fact (Riesch, 2014). The character Penny is often used as a device for explaining complex concepts to the general public and this is where The Big Bang Theory excels as a science communication program.
The show also employs a scientific advisor, Dr David Saltzberg, to review any science in the show. His role is particularly important when the characters are discussing scientific topics, pronouncing complicated words or when the whiteboard is in use (Saltzberg, 2010). Mayim Bialik, who plays the character Amy, Sheldon’s love interest on the show, has a PhD in Neuroscience and is also used to check the accuracy of scientific concepts (Russo, 2012).
From a mental health perspective, The Big Bang Theory is a prime example of social inclusion being important for good mental health. Although it is never stated, the character Sheldon has an autism spectrum disorder. He doesn’t understand sarcasm and struggles to recognize body language and facial expressions, yet he belongs to a strong social circle of friends. At times, the other characters become frustrated with Sheldon’s behaviour and let him know that it is not appropriate to behave the way he is. However, there is sincerity in their interactions and they treat him as a person who has autism, rather than an autistic person.
The Big Bang Theory is light entertainment; a half hour television show that can be enjoyed by most members of the family. The show has never expressed a mandate for promoting science, science communication or social inclusion. That being said, commitment to factual accuracy and relatable characters give the show a credibility it might not otherwise exhibit. The Big Bang Theory is enjoyable, and that is what the creators set out to do (Riesch, 2014). The laughs are set to continue with season seven premiering this week and I will be tuning in to see just what the gang has been getting up to.
Riesch H (2014) Why did the proton cross the road? Humour and science communication. In: Public Understanding of Science. Available at: http://intl-pus.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/08/14/0963662514546299.full.pdf+html
Russo G (2012) Turning point: Mayim Bialik. Nature 485: 669
Saltzberg D (2010) Physics and the making of ‘The Big Bang’ TV Comedy Series. In: APS March Meeting Abstracts (Vol. 1, p. 7001P). Available at: http://meetings.aps.org/link/BAPS.2010.MAR.P7.1
Sandpaw (2010) The Big Bang Theory: A science in fiction backflip? Available at: http://sandpaw.weblogs.anu.edu.au/2010/10/07/the-big-bang-theory-a-science-in-fiction-backflip/