When art meets science
Who: Cleo Freriks, Observant editor
TV series: The Big Bang Theory
Target group: all scientists
“Chaos theory suggests that even in the deterministic system, if the equation is describing its behaviour nonlinear, a tiny change in the initial conditions can lead to a cataclysmic and unpredictable result.” This is the answer given by Sheldon, one of the characters in The Big Bang Theory, to the question: ‘Why won’t you buy a dining table?’ Perhaps comprehensible for his friends, all of whom are scientists too, but Penny next door needs a translation. Fortunately Sheldon’s roommate Leonard helps her: “He means to say: Wèèh, I don’t want a table.”
It is a typical scene from the TV series The Big Bang Theory, a comedy about four young scientists whose lives change dramatically when one of them falls in love with Penny. She is a waitress/actress who doesn’t understand a thing about their world of science and typical nerd hobbies such as Star Trek, comic books and gaming. This means that the men not only need to adapt their behaviour but also their language. They can no longer just drop references to Albert Einstein’s essay On the Quantum Theory of Radiation or Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment.
This is a translation that scientist also have to make when they want to present their work to a wide audience. Even if the average newspaper reader is more intelligent than Penny from the series, it is impossible to be informed about all disciplines. A lawyer doesn’t know the jargon of a biologist and vice versa. It is good for scientists as well as for students to realise that what is familiar and understandable terminology for them, can be incomprehensible to others. Don’t talk too much like Sheldon, but try to do what Leonard does.
A nice detail is that all the scientific references in The Big Bang Theory are correct. Scientists check the scripts for mistakes and they also provide the whiteboards with formulas that are often in the background. Real scientists also regularly play guest roles. Stephen Hawking, Nobel Prize winner George Smoot and writers of popular science books such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Greene have already made their appearance.
This is the last instalment of the series When Art Meets Science