Image of Scientists in “Big Bang Theory”

“The Image of Scientists in The Big Bang Theory”, by Margaret A. Weitekamp (in Physics Today, January 2017, 70, 1, pp. 40-48) See the entire articles at http://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/full/10.1063/PT.3.3427

What is your image of scientists? Do you think they are the nerdy, socially inept characters portrayed in The Big Bang Theory?

In some ways, the hit TV show reinforces popular stereotypes about scientists. In others, notably in its affectionate portrayals, it plays against type.

Contemplating a heavy, oversized box that needed to be moved up several flights of stairs, the lead characters in the popular CBS television comedy The Big Bang Theory (2007– ) established their primary identity as scientists. It was the show’s second episode. Eager to impress the pretty woman across the hall, Leonard Hofstadter (portrayed by Johnny Galecki) appealed to his apartment mate, Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons), by calling on their shared vocation. “We’re physicists. We are the intellectual descendants of Archimedes. Give me a fulcrum and a lever, and I can move the Earth,” Leonard declared, just before he was almost crushed by the box.

In dramatic portrayals, particularly in films, scientists typically appear as stereotyped characters influenced by the long-standing figure of the “mad scientist” in literature, film, and television. And yet, one of the most successful comedies on television today features as its central characters a group of scientists, with several physicists among them. How should those characters be understood? The Big Bang Theory’s affectionate depictions of scientists have tapped into the contemporary popularity of nerd culture to create comedy grounded, especially in the early seasons, in authentic scientific content. Strikingly, when all the supporting players are accounted for, The Big Bang Theory portrays a group of scientists who are more diverse in gender, ethnicity, and especially disciplinary focus than is often seen on television. The characters and comedy of The Big Bang Theory both build on and play against enduring stereotypes of scientists as depicted in popular culture.

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