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Blog

Is Sheldon an inspiration or a grotesque parody?

By James Dacey

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Earlier this week US actor Jim Parsons picked up an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Sheldon Cooper, the socially inept physics postdoc, on the hit CBS TV comedy show The Big Bang Theory. Parsons picked up the award for “outstanding lead actor in a comedy series” at the awards ceremony in Los Angeles on Saturday night, as reported by my colleague Matin Durrani. A large appeal of the comedy smash hit stems from the relationship between Sheldon and his friends and colleagues (two other physicists and an engineer), and their interactions with “near-normal” neighbour Penny (played by Kaley Cuoco).

The idea of humour on screen being derived from a geeky scientist is not particularly new: Eddy Murphy in The Nutty Professor and Christopher Lloyd in the Back to the Future series are two obvious examples that spring to mind. But the thing that strikes me as novel about the Big Bang Theory is that the vast majority of the humour comes from the geeks’ responses to everyday situations, outside of their work. A rich source of humour, for instance, derives from Sheldon’s excessively analytical approach to social situations, where he is aware of what “people” do in given situations but he is not sure why.

On the one hand, it is refreshing to see that people have accepted Sheldon and his crew into their hearts and people seem to love him because all of his physics geekiness. But on the other hand, it is rarely clear whether we are laughing with Sheldon or at him. The extreme view is that Sheldon is a grotesque parody of a socially inept physicist who simply does not fit in with everyday life.

We’d like to hear your thoughts about this. Which of the following statements best describes your feelings about Sheldon?

He’s got me down to a tee!
He’s an exaggerated version of a physicist for comic effect
He’s a grotesque parody that insults physicists
Who is Sheldon?

Have your say by taking part in our Facebook poll. And please feel free to explain your answer by posting a comment on the poll.

Last week’s poll addressed the issue of money, given that the worsening economic conditions on either side of the Atlantic have kept fiscal affairs in the headlines of late. We asked you: “Can ideas borrowed from physics lead us to financial recovery?”

80% of respondents said yes and 20% said no. This suggests that there is still faith in the ability of science to predict “the madness of men”, as Newton once described stock trading after losing a lot of money in the South Sea Bubble. Luis Rico, one of the respondents who voted yes, believes that one of the main advantages of applying physics ideas to economics is “the lack of both political bias and conflicts of interest”. He believes that economics needs to develop more sophisticated systems to better reflect the real world. “Working with a single model of a complex system that has already proven to fail seems unnatural to me and the inability to question axioms makes impossible any real advance.”

Thanks you for all your responses. And check physicsworld.com next Thursday for the results to our latest poll.

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