Sitcom proves a positive force for physics but science still needs a more human face

2nd December 2011 at 00:00
Talented youngsters in our field need to be shown they can still `work with people'

I was talking to a friend who would probably qualify as Scotland's best-known physicist, but for the fact that not many people know she's a physicist. Her husband is a physicist too, and they both love the American sitcom The Big Bang Theory. I've written before of my own liking for this show, despite cringeing initially at its apparent premise - some physicists and engineers are socially awkward.

I've never known someone quite like protagonist Sheldon Cooper, in so far as none of my university peers (to my knowledge) arranged their breakfast cereal packets according to fibre content, but I did have a friend whose pens, carried in his top pocket, were always lined up in spectral order. Oh all right, that was me. And it was supposed to be a subliminal teaching aid.

Now, go off for a moment to your computer and Google "Big Bang Theory fuels physics boom". There you will find anecdotal (ie unscientific) evidence that the programme is a factor in a significant rise in the number of students taking A-level physics. Is this true, or has the increase more to do with Brian Cox, or the economic climate?

The romantic in me would like to think that economics came well after Sheldon, Leonard and Penny, the comedy's main characters. There is nothing in The Big Bang Theory that suggests physics isn't cool or that social dysfunctionality is either a prerequisite for, or a consequence of, becoming a physicist.

At its heart, the show is an inside job, full of affection for its characters, poking fun at them from a position of understanding. The physicists are recognisably good people. The physics is portrayed as interesting and exciting. We can imagine being friends with the scientists, happy to put up with their quirks and obsessions as a trade- off for their lack of aggression.

In the same conversation with my "best-known physicist who isn't necessarily known for being a physicist", we decided that science still had a PR job to do. We both knew S6 students with real talent in physics or engineering, who were eschewing these fields because they "wanted to work with people".

There are wonderful initiatives out there that demonstrate that STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers do involve working with people. My son and niece had life-changing experiences at Strathclyde University's space school, for example. Somehow, though, the message still needs to get through, and even The Big Bang Theory doesn't help here.

Now before I go, can I just say how much I like your shoes? Bazinga. I don't care about your shoes. Fans of The Big Bang Theory know what I'm on about. We have a working knowledge of the universe and all it contains.

Gregor Steele, Scottish Schools Education Research Centre

Gregor Steele has a Big Bang Theory app on his phone.

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