Should the Big Bang Theory have a Mission? Should Science Fiction?

March 1st, 2011

A friend sent me a link to an article at Physics Today about The Big Bang Theory.  The premise of the article was to ask if the comedy could do more than make people laugh, and to propose it could educate them at the same time.  Here is the lead:

Could scientists help the cause of science by helping CBS raise its physics situation comedy The Big Bang Theory from the level of Gomer Pyle, USMC to the level of MASH?

Might CBS let physicists help elevate BBT from the level of Seinfeld, a hilarious show about nothing, to the level of All in the Family, a hilarious show about society’s profoundest issues?

I think the Big Bang Theory is already at a level higher than Gomer Pyle, myself, and MASH wasn’t always that deep.

I don’t strongly disagree with the proposal, but let me say a few things about it.  Obviously as a science educator, founder of Launch Pad — now accepting applications — and editor of Diamonds in the Sky, I have an interest in reaching the public with good science and I have no problem doing it with entertainment.  As a writer, especially one with some success (although far less than the writers of Big Bang Theory), I’d have a huge problem with a group of physicists suggesting I change my formula to pursue their agenda.  Personally, I already think there’s a lot of good being done in the proposed direction by exchanges like this:

I think my biggest concern beyond the pushiness is the following.  When you intentionally write to inject a message, especially in a comedy, you’re likely to flat on your face if you’re not brilliant.  If the Big Bang Theory started to get more pedagogical and ratings dropped, that would end the experiment not just for the one show, but any new show proposals for years to come.

The show already has characters with scientific perspectives, somewhat contaminated with comic books and science fiction, and they make them clear week after week.  Exaggerated, funny perspectives sometimes, but ones in lines with science folk.  And like in the clip above, Penny is the butt of the jokes sometimes for her lack of science.  The physicists are usually the butt of the jokes on social issues…and while there are socially astute physicists, the average physicist puts style a million parsecs behind substance.

Honestly, I’m thrilled with anything that includes science, respects it (but not necessarily individual scientists who can be flaky social outcasts), and doesn’t get it wrong.  The cameos by real scientists is especially welcome, too, given that examples like Neil deGrasse Tyson do have social acumen and style.

Let the Big Bang Theory pave the road for the socially conscious and educational science version of MASH.  It has shown that mass audiences will watch a show about scientists that touches on real science regularly.

The first day of Launch Pad I usually tell attendees that I’m not out to convert them to being hard science fiction writers, or to try to make them write educational stories.  I say that I’d be thrilled if they did, and wish that Harry Potter readers had gotten more of an astronomy lesson and that Twilight readers learned the phases of the moon in order to understand werewolves.  Honestly, I’d just be happy if I didn’t see bad attitudes toward science and scientists everywhere, and if the majority of science topics popping up on TV and movies didn’t have major errors.  Is that so much to wish for?

So, I don’t think science fiction should have a mission to educate people about science.  But I would like it if it did, some of the time, without compromising its entertainment value.

Too much of the time the science on TV and in movies is just plain dumb, the scientists are arrogant and mad or alternatively weird and socially inept, or science is just not a valued part of reality.  I suspect that until the public is better educated about science and actually trusts it more than what their political and religious leaders say, shows like the Big Bang Theory will be the exception rather than the rule, and a version with educational value will be laughed out of the water before it’s aired.  At least with the Big Bang Theory we often laugh with the scientists, not at them.  Except when it’s funny and they deserve it.  That’s the way it should be.

P.S. I wanted to add a link to the Big Blog Theory, which discusses the science in episodes of the Big Bang Theory.  The show is obviously already getting touches of real science in there, which is not bad for a general comedy audience in 21-22 minutes per episode.


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