Six Physicists Walk Into a Room…

The Big Bang Theory is a new CBS sitcom about the world of physics grad students—so who better, we thought, to sit in judgment of it than a roomful of Columbia physics grad students? We screened the show for a roundtable of real-life experts and collected their responses. The verdict? As it turns out, making a great sitcom may be rocket science after all.

Was the physics on the show accurate?
Azfar Adil (age 27, high-energy particle physics): Not at all.
David Kagan (27, theoretical physics): Some of it was loosely accurate.
AA: What really bothers me is that it’s somehow okay to not know science in this country. Nobody would have, like, a piano prodigy on a show and have him talk about Mozart while Beethoven was playing.
Becky Grossman (26, black-hole binary dynamics): And I was a little confused as to why just because they’re physicists they’re really good at finishing crossword puzzles. I mean, I’m not saying just because you’re a physicist you can’t do that. But it doesn’t go hand in hand that because you’re a physicist, you can do crossword puzzles.

You guys did laugh at several points…
BG: Never at the science!
AA: There were a couple of funny one-liners.
DK: I think the chemistry between the two guys [Johnny Galecki and Jim Parsons] is a classic comic relationship, the Abbott-and-Costello thing. It’s the writing that’s the big issue. I think we weren’t convinced by the writing. By contrast, on a show like Seinfeld, the characters are still believable even though they’re outrageous.
AA: Even if I didn’t see myself in one of those characters on Seinfeld, I still wanted to be one of those characters on Seinfeld.
Gabe Perez-Giz (32, gravitational wave physics): Well, I wanted to be Raj [the Indian character on The Big Bang Theory].
AA: I am him!
Laura Newburgh (26, cosmology): Parts of the stereotypes are true; I mean, there are certainly people here who play video games and like Battlestar Galactica.
AA: It’s an awesome show.
DK: We’re mostly normal…well, mostly.
LN: I’ve heard Caltech students are not that normal.

What would you guys draw on if you were writing this show?
AA: Sitcoms do well when there’s a consistent rhythm to them. The hook I’d use would be, “How did you feel about your research today?” Because either nothing’s working, or everything’s over the moon.
Simon Judes (27, string theory): Like Gob on Arrested Development! We’re basically always whining about nothing important. And then we’re absurdly happy about tiny achievements.
DK: And in every department I’ve ever been in, you have the one guy who’s essentially lost his mind. Those guys are very weird and would be great comic fodder.
AA: No other field, I think, collects as many crazies. And not just physics crazies—all kinds of crazies.
SJ: Oh, and another thing, the whole Stephen Hawking bit. Stephen Hawking is actually a rather peripheral figure in physics research.

So you think physics could be funny?
DK: I don’t know about you guys, but my friends and I make lots of physics-laden jokes. And we laugh at them even though they’re terrible. But I don’t know how you convey that in a show. This show was making all these mathy, jargony jokes that were supposed to be funny, but the point of these jokes is they’re horrible. You don’t build a show around them!
BG: I have to say, it really bothers me that there’s only one woman on the show, and she’s the dumb blonde. They could have had one nerdy girl in there.
AA: But really, the show has nothing to do with physics. It’s more like Beauty and the Geek in sitcom form.

The Big Bang Theory
CBS; premieres September 24 (8:30 p.m.).

Six Physicists Walk Into a Room…