Special relativity; The Big Bang Theory is full of social silliness
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 14 October 2008)

Sheldon Cooper, the most engaging character in The Big Bang Theory, is a physicist with an IQ of 187 and a deep respect for his own innate nerdiness. He wears a watch linked to the atomic clock in Boulder, Colo., accurate to within a tenth of a second, and he sorts his breakfast cereals according to fibre content. He and his friends play Klingon Boggle, which uses the Klingon language (invented for Star Trek and its many offspring) to play Boggle, a word game that's hard enough when played in English.

Sheldon never hesitates to demonstrate that he's smarter than anyone else in the room or, for that matter, anyone else in the state of California, but he seldom understands human conversation. Sarcasm, irony and everyday overstatement are beyond his linguistic and imaginative reach. The real world might identify him as a victim of Asperger's syndrome, but in TV comedy he's a terrific character -- everybody's idea of a high-octane young scientist, but magnified to the power of 10.

He can explain why he is the way he is. He's spent the last three and a half years staring at equations after four years working on his PhD thesis. Before that, he was in college; before that, he was in the fifth grade. He's been treated as a genius since childhood.

Jim Parsons, as Sheldon, delivers the lines of the scriptwriters with carefully calibrated disdain. At the start of the series Sheldon's roommate, Leonard (like him, a postdoctoral student in experimental physics at the California Institute of Technology), developed lustful feelings for Penny, the gorgeous blond waitress across the hall. Sheldon's response was typical: "I think that you have as much of a chance of having a sexual relationship with Penny as the Hubble telescope does of discovering at the centre of every black hole a little man with a flashlight searching for a circuit breaker."

The roommates have two CalTech friends, Howard (Simon Helberg), a young man who lives with his mom but sees every meeting with a woman as a sexual opportunity, and Rajesh (Kunal Nayyar), a shy student from India whose romantic progress is slowed by his inability to speak when in the presence of a woman. We got some idea of the scriptwriters' range when Battlestar Galactica, Klingon Boggle and a lecture by Stephen Hawking were all mentioned in the first episode.

In developing Sheldon and Leonard (Johnny Galecki), the producers have borrowed from The Odd Couple, with Leonard as a relatively easygoing Oscar and Sheldon as a fussy and infuriating Felix; he gets upset if someone else sits in his corner of the sofa. Their names are a remarkable tribute from coproducer, Chuck Lorre, to a renowned figure in TV comedy, Sheldon Leonard (1907-1997), a well-known actor who ended up producing the Danny Thomas, Andy Griffith and Dick Van Dyke shows.

Last year, those of us in what I think of as the Big Bang community were heartsick when the Writers Guild went on strike. The Big Bang, having had only weeks to establish an audience, seemed a likely victim of the strike. But it returned this season, in all its flagrant, extravagant, outrageous silliness.

At its core it's also truthfully silly, as Shakespeare has Duke Orsino say of a certain song in Twelfth Night, a song that "dallies with the innocence of love." Through all of the Big Bang's hyperbolic comedy, truths struggle toward expression. Young love and young lust are often thwarted. We long for human connections but find them painfully difficult to make. In personal relations, our education can do as much harm as good. And there's another benefit to watching The Big Bang: It usefully reminds you how little you know -- unless, of course, you happen to be a physicist.

Dealing with Sheldon, Leonard and their friends, Penny (played by Kelly Cuoco) represents reality, the audience's surrogate in her exasperated view of the scientists' presumptions and clumsiness. Still, like everyone in Los Angeles, she has her own fantasies. She's planning a novel about a Lincoln, Neb., actress who comes to Hollywood and has to earn her living in a cheesecake restaurant. When someone asks if the book is autobiographical, she says "No," as she herself comes from Omaha. Will she and Leonard eventually become a couple? The audience would like nothing better, but the show would evaporate.

The Big Bang Theory employs a coach and critic who makes sure the characters talk scientific sense (rather than the gobbledygook they might as well be spouting, so far as many of us can tell) and that the whiteboards they occasionally show on the set display credible formulae that might actually be used by actual physicists. He's David Saltzberg, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California (UCLA).

Few non-scientists could comprehend what he does with the rest of his time, but his official UCLA bio says: "His group looks for signs of supersymmetry and measures exotic properties of the top quark," which should be good enough for the likes of me. Still, you can't be too careful, and in my suspicious mind there arose the possibility that when Sheldon referred to Munchhausen's Trilemma, Saltzberg might be having us on, just to show he could do it.

In that scene, Sheldon was planning to move out of the apartment he and Leonard share. Leonard asked why, but Sheldon had a secret reason that he couldn't reveal. In fact, he couldn't even admit he had a secret at all. He explained: "This is a classic example of Munchhausen's Trilemma. Either the reason is predicated on a series of sub-reasons leading to an infinite regression, or it tracks back to arbitrary axiomatic statements, or it's ultimately circular, i. e. I'm moving out because I'm moving out."

A trilemma was news to me, though I know a little about the relationship of pathological liars with Baron Munchhausen, an 18th-century German soldier addicted to prevarication. But a little rooting around in philosophy, social science and the terminology of chess revealed that there are several conceivably legitimate uses of the term. In fact, I expect to be deploying it myself, the first chance I get.

It didn't work with Leonard, though. "I'm still confused," he said, to which Sheldon replied, "I don't see how I could have made it any simpler." Precisely.

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