Smithsonian curator looks at TV program’s effect on scientists’ image

Jan. 10, 2017

How do shows like The Big Bang Theory affect people’s perceptions of scientists, and do they encourage in interest in science? The actress Mayim Bialik, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA, may offer her opinion in her keynote address at IPC APEX EXPO next month, where she will discuss how the show has helped to break down perceived “science barriers.”

Meanwhile, Margaret Weitekamp, a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, addresses the topic in a Physics Today article titled “The image of scientists in The Big Bang Theory.” Weitekamp comments that in many dramatic portrayals, “…scientists typically appear as stereotyped characters influenced by the long-standing figure of the ‘mad scientist’ in literature, film, and television.”

In contrast, she writes, “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.” The show both builds on and plays against stereotypes, she adds, noting that the characters represent diversity in gender, ethnicity, and disciplinary focus.

She contrasts the show with movies such as A Beautiful Mind and Proof, which, she writes, “…celebrate genius mathematicians but also illustrate the purported relationship between mental illness and startling insight.” As for fictional characters, she cites Star Trek’s Mr. Spock as an example of a scientist “…who is aloof or socially awkward but exhibits superior analytical skills.” She adds that with few exceptions, “…most popular-culture portrayals of scientists reinforce the idea that scientists are white and male.”

Weitekamp traces the evolution of the term nerd, or geek, from the time when it described a person who is “fooling, offensive, or worthless” to the late-1990s dot-com boom, when “geek became chic.” She writes, “The Big Bang Theory creator [Bill] Prady knows geek culture, having worked briefly as a computer programmer. For The Big Bang Theory, nerds form both its subject and much of its audience.”

She adds that getting the science right has been a key to the show’s success, although the details are not intended to increase scientific literacy. She also notes that the show contains a running joke about the rift between engineers and scientists, with an actor portraying a scientist describing engineering as the place “…where the noble, semiskilled laborers execute the vision of those who think and dream.”

The show has always included women scientists, Weitekamp notes, “But they have been caught between their functions as supporting characters for the male leads and depictions of women as working scientists.” The addition of two women in the third season, she said, including the character that Bialik plays, “…expanded the potential for depicting women scientists as more than stereotypes.” However, she adds, “The women scientists in The Big Bang Theory consistently fall victim to what historian of science Margaret Rossiter has called ‘the Matilda effect,’ the tendency to have their work devalued or co-opted by male colleagues.”

She notes that the program treats science and fans with authenticity and respect, attracting real scientists and engineers to make cameo appearances. She concludes, “Its depiction of scientists may build on a long history of geeks and mad scientists, but the heart of the show’s appeal rests in its affectionate portrayal of scientists, complete with equation-laden whiteboards, and its depiction of nerd culture, presented as somehow inextricably linked to scientific pursuits.”

You can read the article here, which is a 5,000-word adaptation from a longer version published in 2015 in the Journal of Popular Television.

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