Cultural effect of The Big Bang Theory

By Ken Perrott 08/11/2011 9


I have often thought that we just don’t get enough science in our popular culture. Perhaps people would understand and be more supportive of science, for example, if we had a regular TV soap opera based around the life and work of scientists.

So I feel a little vindicated by the news reports that there is a current resurgence of interest in physics among A-level and university students in the UK. And  The Big Bang Theory, a California-based comedy that follows two young physicists, is being suggested as an important factor (see Big Bang Theory fuels physics boom).

Some students are saying as much:

Tom Whitmore, 15, from Brighton, acknowledged that Big Bang Theory had contributed to his decision, with a number of classmates, to consider physics at A-level, and in causing the subject to be regarded as “cool”. “The Big Bang Theory is a great show and it’s definitely made physics more popular. And disputes between classmates now have a new way of being settled: with a game of rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock,” he said.

And so are some of the experts:

Institute of Physics (IoP) spokesman, Joe Winters, said: “The rise in popularity of physics appears to be due to a range of factors, including Brian’s public success, the might of the Large Hadron Collider and, we’re sure, the popularity of shows like The Big Bang Theory.”

Alex Cheung, editor of physics.org, said: “There’s no doubt that TV has also played a role. The Big Bang Theory seems to have had a positive effect and the viewing figures for Brian Cox‘s series suggest that millions of people in the UK are happy to welcome a physics professor, with a tutorial plan in hand, into their sitting room on a Sunday evening.”  [Prof. Brian Cox who has been fronting a series of very popular science documentaries Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe.]

Brian Cox

Apparently there has been a 10% increase in the number of students accepted to read physics by the university admissions services between 2008-09, when The Big Bang Theory was first broadcast in the UK, and 2010-11. Applications for physics courses at university are also up more than 17% on last year.

Jim Al-Khalili

I know documentaries of the type presented by popular scientists like Brian Cox and Jim Al-Khalili (who has made Secret Life of ChaosChemistry: A Volatile History, Science and Islam,  Atom,   Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity, and others) are invaluable in motivating and inspiring young people. But there is something special to be said for soap operas. And The Big Bang Theory is a very entertaining and effective soap opera.

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9 Responses to “Cultural effect of The Big Bang Theory”

  • Proving once again that comedy is the best way to get the message across. I suspect “Numbers” has had a similar effect for maths. Both are great shows.

  • Fantastic! Personally im hoping to lever off this popularity to bring in biophysics as well. Either way it’s great to see such a positive impact!

  • Has anyone noticed that of the many prominent science communicators around the world, many of them seem to be physicists, a few less are biologists, and some are medical doctors.
    Where the hell are the chemists???

  • Yes, Michael, as a chemist this has also got through to me at times.

    There are Peter Atkins and Harry Kroto.

    Maybe it’s easier to make physics seem amazing. Maybe chemistry has some baggage regarding contamination of the environment.

    But even so – I agree there is a need.

  • Actually, now that you have prompted my memory Alan MacDiarmid did some good public presentations when he visited NZ. And Prof Joe Schwarcz who is giving talks in NZ later this month is a chemist and has written at least 7 or 8 great books on everyday chemistry and science.

    I think you are correct re the baggage around chemistry particularly in relationship to the environment. A pity people can’t see that most of the objects around them are the result of chemistry – medicines, plastics, foods, alloys.

  • There’s Britain’s Professor Poliakoff, too. It’s been a long time since I’ve featured Brady Haran’s videos (he’s the man behind the camera); must revisit them.

  • Yes, Sheldon Cooper of the sitcom Big Bang Theory. Lots of us know about this character played by Jim Parsons. You could say that Sheldon is a classic example of a weird friend. Initially, I thought Sheldon was an alien from outer space. The way he behaves, his figurative mode of speech was unusual and seriously discrete. If you take a character analysis of Sheldon ways of living, mannerism, it could sometimes flabbergast you. Why? Because you have a person like his friends Leonard, Howard, and Rajesh have an extensive collection of superhero toys in which Flash is his favorite. Man! You will split into laughter, when you see in an episode where he dresses up as the Flash after drinking five cups of coffee. He gets so energized and intoxicated that he just speeds out of the apartment into the street in the Flash costume. ;

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