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What did LI's physics community think about 'The Big Bang Theory?'

Director of the Simons Center for Geometry and

Director of the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics at Stony Brook University, Professor Luis Álvarez-Gaumé.  Credit: Joshua Klein

Luis Álvarez-Gaumé is director of the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics at Stony Brook, a leading theoretician in string theory, and a former member of CERN, which operates the famed particle accelerator.

He's also a fan of "The Big Bang Theory."

Álvarez-Gaumé is not alone either, in either the Long Island community of physicists or the national one — Nobel laureates Kip Thorne, George Smoot and Frances Arnold, a chemical engineer, even appeared in a recent episode.

Like Amy and Sheldon's perplexing (fictional) theory of "superasymmetry," this strange anomaly would appear in need of an answer to the pressing question of why? Spanish-born Álvarez-Gaumé happily offers one: "There's a balance of amusing and interesting lives, always presented with a great sense of humor, and you can see a trace of them in our community. They are exaggerated — sure — but many in our profession are eternal adolescents, too. Youthfulness, ego, naive absent-mindedness and a passion for the research — many of us have those traits of the characters as well."

Then there is the science of "Big Bang," which is surprisingly real, surprisingly nuanced, too. Hofstra's Dr. Brett Bochner — who specializes in black hole mergers, dark energy, and the pre-inflation early universe — explains that an ongoing inside joke on the show mirrors a "Counter-Reformation rebellion" going on in physics at the moment.

To wit, is supersymmetry accurate or not?

If proven, supersymmetry could be a final missing piece of the Standard Model, which has ruled particle physics for over half a century.

The only problem: Supersymmetry has yet to be proven so "Big Bang's" joke is that Amy and Sheldon are instead pursuing something called "superasymmetry." A week before the finale, it appears they have both their proof and their Nobel Prize.

But Bochner points to another endearing trait of the show. "They treat the scientists with respect," he says. "They've never made them out to be idiots or fools but real people who are just a little bit different. The writers clearly like the characters because they're not just comic foils."

Not everyone agrees entirely. Marisa Petrusky, a Stony Brook sophomore and nuclear experimental physics major says her favorite character is Amy — "a cool role model [who's] grown a lot" — but says that the critics among her peers say "the audience is laughing at the characters instead of with them. To those involved in geek culture, I can see how some of the jokes might make some people feel offended." A lot of other student-critics "find sexism against female characters disturbing, or find it repetitive, or feel that most of the characters haven't grown" over the twelve seasons.

 However "yes," Petrusky admits, "people are paying attention."

Then there's Ameera Iftekhar, an applied physics major at Hofstra from Floral Park, who describes herself as an "aspie" — or someone with Asperger's, which is now classified under the umbrella of autism spectrum disorder. She says "I appreciate the representative (with Sheldon) but feel it's a caricature rather than an actual person."

 While Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon, and the show have long said Sheldon did not have ASD, some others in the ASD community have embraced him as TV's rare representative. Iftekhar says "I understand why some see him as a hero [and] I can also be bad at social cues and can be cold, impolite and callous too. But I've also grown and had interactions with different people."

Sheldon, she argues, has remained in place. While he's married in the intervening years, he's still the same old Sheldon.

Meanwhile, Sydney Andrews, a PhD candidate in astrophysics at Stony Brook who lives in Port Jefferson offers this: "It's [Sheldon's portrayal] well-intentioned and what character on TV isn't a caricature?"

 Andrews — who jokes that her grandmother back in Los Alamos, New Mexico, tells her not to "come back home as Sheldon" — says that "a lot of people think of science as some sort of faceless concept, and aren't necessarily willing to believe science or scientists."

"The Big Bang Theory," she says, "has been really important in terms of humanizing the sciences."

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