Science in the Sitcom

Students and fans of the popular sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” gathered inside HIB 100 last Thursday night for a closer look at the scientific concepts presented in CBS’s popular television show.

Patrick Herrin | New University

Patrick Herrin | New University

ASUCI’s Academic Engagement and Speaker and Debate Series hosted the lecture and utilized the show’s popularity as a basis to engage students academically in an environment outside of the classroom.

Skyla Zhang, the vice-president of academic affairs at ASUCI, was inspired to create the event following a meeting with the Dean of Physical Sciences Kenneth Janda, during the summer of 2013. Upon being asked if he watched “The Big Bang Theory,” Dean Janda admitted to watching one episode but was quickly turned away from the series by scientific inaccuracies within the show. A fan of the show herself, Zhang saw an opportunity for professors to examine the principles of science included in “The Big Bang Theory” while educating students that were fans of the show.

“I think the show’s great because it’s somewhat educational. For regular students, they can be like, ‘Wow, I can still learn some principles from this show while still enjoying myself because it’s such an entertaining program,’” Zhang said. “It’s a good opportunity for students to take away some of the scientific principles we appreciate in our everyday life.”

Representing the department of physics and astronomy, Professors Herbert Hamber, James Bullock, and Tim Tait were on hand to discuss the science behind the Big Bang Theory. Coincidentally, Harvard University held a symposium celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Big Bang Theory on the same night.

To kick off the evening, Prof. Hamber started by dissecting the title of the show itself and provided students with a brief overview of the Big Bang Theory and its role in modern study of physics and astronomy today.

Next to take the floor was Dr. Bullock, who opened his presentation with a clip showcasing the show’s protagonist Sheldon Copper expressing his disdain for Neil deGrasse Tyson as he was responsible for the demotion of Pluto as a planet. Bullock proceeded to then launch into a discussion exploring “Who Killed Pluto?”

One of the most renowned American astrophysicists since Carl Sagan, Tyson was one of the first astronomers to realize that Pluto was not a planet. In the year 2000, Tyson, the director of the world famous Hayden Planeterium, decided to remove Pluto from a planetary exhibition in an unsanctioned and highly controversial move.

In 2003, Cal Tech Professor Mike Brown discovered a planet slightly bigger than Pluto that possessed the same erratic traits, which he dubbed Xena. This discovery ultimately culminated in a conference of professional astronomers held in Prague during the summer of 2006, where the fate of Pluto was left to a vote.

Physics and astronomy Professors Aaron Barth and Virginia Trimble were also present at the conference. Berth voted on the fate of Pluto while Trimble was put in charge of counting the final number of votes.

Bullock explained the status of Pluto as a sign of the progress that can be brought forth by science and said, “It’s an example of one of the strengths of science, you have preconceived ideas, and you change those ideas in the face of new data.”

Professor Tate took the floor, and took the opportunity to discuss specific gravity, which is essentially the measure of an object’s density and can be calculated by dividing its density by the density of water.

For the remainder of his lecture, Tate discussed the Large Hadron Collider, an engineering marvel that Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter are intent on one day visiting. The collision subsequently produces several subatomic particles, which scientists hope will one day result in new particles, such as the Higgs Boson, colloquially known as the “God particle.”
After the lectures, Professor Hamber used live demonstrations of the concepts seen in the show. During one episode of “The Big Bang Theory,” Leonard explains the concept of centripetal force to Penny by twirling an olive into a cup using only the cup itself. With an assistant replicating the stunt on stage, Hamber explained to the audience that essentially a form of artificial gravity was being created by the forceful rotations.