So now it's time for us to get serious and discuss the Big Bang Theory, which as you know is how the universe started billions of years ago when, in a
micro-pico second of time.....
Actually let's not...get serious that is. I would rather discuss 'The Big Bang Theory', a very successful, American sitcom that has been airing round the world for over a decade now and has made everyone involved exceedingly rich. The question is why? What is it about this show that resonates with audiences from every continent in a way that most American sitcoms don't? What can it tell us about the contemporary world of science that we don't learn from TED Talks, 'Horizon', the boffins wheeled out every time a space probe takes interesting pictures of Pluto or NASA? It obviously has a secret formula but what exactly is it?
For those of you who on hearing the words 'Big Bang' still have your minds flooded with images of gravitational vortices, bending space-time and matter emerging out of a singularity (whatever that is), like a vacuum cleaner switched over to blow instead of suck, let me explain. The Big Bang Theory (which from now on will be abbreviated to TBBT) concerns the adventures of a group of academic scientists from Caltech (California Institute of Technology) in Pasadena. This lies just to the north east of LA and therefore conveniently near to the Hollywood studio in which TBBT is filmed. The male leads are all of them extremely intelligent nerds. The underlying joke is that while the clever little so-and-so's look down on the rest of us mere mortals, they are useless when it comes to chatting up women. The star of the show, Dr Sheldon Cooper, has an off-the-scale IQ that is only exceeded by his almost autistic self-belief. He is a theoretical physicist, researching such abstract matters as quantum mechanics and string theory. He is convinced that the world owes him a Nobel Prize and looks down upon not just us but also his flat-mate, Dr Leonard Hofstadter, who is 'only' an experimental physicist. They are friends with Dr Rajeesh Koothrappali, a particle physicist from New Delhi who has access to space tech such as the Mars Rover. Completing their quartet is Howard Wolowitz, a space engineer who early on is not yet a PhD but, initially anyway, only has a Masters degree.
When not at work, they inhabit a juvenile world of comic books, Dungeons and Dragons, Star Trek repeats and Comic Con Festivals. Their lives are thrown into turmoil when Penny an attractive, blonde, would-be actress moves into the apartment next door. Much of the subsequent humour centres on her on-off relationship with Leonard. Further on in the series, the other male leads also get themselves girl-friends, although with hilarious misunderstandings and complications. This is the surface level humour of TBBT and it is what has made the show the biggest 'gang of friends' hit sit-com since 'Friends' itself stopped making new episodes. Seeing how juvenile these undeniably clever people really are and how they make fools of themselves over the simplest things (for example the etiquette of the 'chat up') is a delight. It allows the rest of us to chortle over our own take-away dinners and feel just a little bit better about our mediocre lives.
The science community, however, sees things rather differently. It absolutely adores the fact that at last they have a sit-com of their own: one where their self-evident cleverness is celebrated. Little wonder then that there has been a steady stream of real scientists queuing up to have cameo roles on the show. The most famous of these is the British astrophysicist, the late Professor Stephen Hawking: Mr 'Black Holes' himself. In the show Sheldon both idolises and envies Hawking as the archetypal, successful theoretical physicist who has achieved his own ambition of reaching the pinnacle of world fame for his work. The fact that Hawking, though profoundly handicapped retains his sense of humour and can even laugh at his portrayal with a funny, Dalek voice on TBBT would seem to be the final accolade on a series that has captured the world. However there is a deeper meaning to this series that I don't think even Hawking realised and which I suspect is, if not the cause of its success, one of the reasons why TBBT was thought up in the first place.
Throughout the series the star of the show is undoubtedly Sheldon Cooper. His quirks, eccentric behaviour and simple incomprehension of irony point towards the rather un-funny diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome. Could this be a subtle reference to Hawking's handicap? However there is something else going on here as well. While Sheldon's achievements are all pie-in-the-sky, his friends make concrete contributions to the development of their various disciplines. For example, Howard trains as a an astronaut and is sent up to the International Space Station to fix it. Leonard carries out a multitude of experiments in the Laboratory and even goes off to the Arctic for some months to make scientific observations out in the field. Howard's girlfriend Bernadette is also carrying out real research as is Sheldon's on-off-on again girlfriend Amy (even if she does give her pet monkey an addiction to smoking). Even Penny moves on. Realising she is never going to make it as an actress, she gets a job as a pharmaceutical rep. for which she is paid more than Leonard earns. Sheldon, meanwhile remains locked in a cocoon of imaginary achievement as he scribbles equations on a white board and fantasises about the Nobel Prize he believes he richly deserves.
This very much portrays the on-going struggle between the Electric Universe paradigm and the legacy of Albert Einstein. You see starting with Einstein, modern astrophysics has been hi-jacked by mathematicians and turned into a mental abstraction, a game that few can even understand let alone play. Worse still it is a paradigm that is not testable experimentally. If there is a black hole at the centre of the galaxy, we are not going to be able to look at it. Nor can we make a small one here on earth and test that. All that can be done is to measure electro-magnetic radiations coming from that region and speculate on what might be happening. If we postulate that there really is a black hole at the centre of the galaxy, there is no way of knowing if this is correct. This is not real science but rather metaphysics. It is really no different from speculating that the cabbages at the bottom of the garden are being eaten every night by invisible unicorns. We can't see the unicorns because they are invisible but we cannot prove they are not there either. Of course in the real world we can prove that it is most likely the rabbits who live beyond the fence who are coming in at night and eating the cabbages. However when it comes to black holes, modern astrophysicists are so in love with the idea that they won't even consider that their observations are down to anything else: the stellar equivalent of the rabbitts. They remain trapped in a world of Sheldon-like, mathematical make-believe and nothing will move them from it.
By contrast, the Electric Universe paradigm is different. First and foremost it is is based on experimental research in the laboratory. The fact that what is observed is scalable to any size, gives it a validity that is denied to the so-called 'Standard Model'. The Electric Universe Theory does not require the invention of invisible 'Dark Matter', or 'Black Holes', or impossible 'Neutron Stars' to use as fudge-factors for defective mathematics. On the contrary, it is able to explain what is actually observed based on known Physics and even make predictions for what will be discovered. For example Wal Thornhill, the leading proponent for EU theory today, was able to accurately predict that when probes were sent to comets it would be found that they are not 'dirty snowballs' as the standard model claimed, but rather rocky, dry objects. We now know that he was right. It turns out that comets are really no different from asteroids except that they have very elliptical orbits. Thornhill also predicted that when a probe was set to crash into a comet, there would be observed two flashes. The first would be related to an electrical discharge between the probe and the asteroid, while the second would be from the impact itself. This too was proved to be correct.
Now Caltech, as the name would suggest, is primarily concerned with the practical physics and engineering needed for space travel. Indeed it oversees NASA's jet propulsion unit. While it does have a theoretical physics department (to which Stephen Hawking was himself at one time attached), this is really subsidiary to its main work of training engineers. After all it is no use theorising about space travel if you do not have engineers and technologists capable of making the equipment needed. This applies to satellites and telescopes as well as rockets to put them into space. In this context, the fictional Sheldon is very much the odd man out. He may think of himself as the superior member of his friendship group but in reality he is like a cock crowing while standing on a dung heap of his own making. This, I believe, is the hidden satire of TBBT: a chance for the engineers and real scientists of Caltech to get back at nose-in-the-air theoretical physicists who play at science as though it were no more than mathematics on a white board. I suspect that, secretly, the brains behind TBBH are big fans of The Electric Universe. After all why wouldn't they be? It speaks their language.
P.S. Wal Thornhill, who made the predictions about comets and many other things too, will be coming to the first ever, UK Conference on the Electric Universe paradigm. It takes place in Bath on the weekend of 7-8 July with a follow-up symposium near Taunton on Tuesday 10-11. Book your place now at www.electricuniverseuk.com