Sitcom squelches Marie Curie

Women who want to be scientists aren’t so faint-hearted as to be stopped by a sitcom, writes Heather Mac Donald in City Journal.

New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier recently called for renewed attention to the lack of proportional representation of women in science. . . . The imbalance in the sciences, Angier reported, is especially bad in physics, where just 6 percent of full professors are women. After canvassing some current theories explaining the imbalance, Angier offered her own scapegoats: “Bubble-headed television shows like ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ with its four nerdy male physics prodigies and the fetching blond girl next door.”

Imagine the devastation that such a show might wreak. A 15-year-old math whiz is happily immersed in the Lorentz transformations, the basis for the theory of special relativity. She looks up at the tube and sees a fictional group of male physics students bashfully speaking to a feisty blonde. Her confidence and enthusiasm shattered, she drops out of her AP physics course and starts hanging out at the mall with the cheerleading squad.

Will she think: I can’t succeed in science? Or: I will be hanging out with nerdy guys at MIT?

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  1. Apparently she doesn’t WATCH the show….there are actually more females at the University lab than would probably be expected by the statistics she quotes. In fact Sarah Gilbert’s recurring character is portrayed as CLEARLY smartered than Uberer geek Sheldon and regularly upstaged the male characters in the brains category. Geez, maybe she should have watched it instead of reading the brief summary on-line?

  2. Heh. Reminds of people claiming that Sigourney Weaver’s character in Aliens was portrayed as a “wimp” because she was a woman. The evidence? Being a substitute mommy for the little girl. Personally, I thought a character who says, straight up, “I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit – it’s the only way to be sure” is not exactly competing for the Lead Wimp role, but you would have had to have watched the movie to know that.

  3. I was going to mention the Sarah Gilbert character but I see KC beat me to it, so I’ll close with this…

    The Big Bang Theory is the FUNNIEST and BEST WRITTEN comedy currently on the air!!!

    I hope it picks up more viewership so it won’t get canceled…

  4. deirdremundy says:

    I’d LIKE to watch BBT (Saw an episode on a friends Tivo) but, oddlty enough for a nerd show, it’s not available online!!!!

    I don’t watch broadcast— too inconvenient!

  5. Ask Larry Summers. He knows why there are fewer women than men in science. But, he’s not allowed to tell you. He might upset people and have to resign his position at Harvard. Wait a minute. He did what? He told people the answer in a public meeting and had to resign?

    Never mind.

  6. I’d be willing to bet a Curie-grade female scientist would be too busy working on stuff – or too involved with other interesting life-things – to be rattled by, or even to watch, a silly sitcom.

    I’ve seen BBT (or rather, parts of it) a few times. It’s mildly funny but not something I’d set my TIVO for. If I had one, which I don’t.

    I’m a “lady scientist” though not a very high powered one. I can’t say I ever felt belittled or like people believed I was incapable of doing what I am doing. I admit a bit of irritation of the stereotype of “a woman can be smart and look like a dog, or can be hot and the elevator not go all the way to the top” but I figure that things like that tell you more about the person whose mouth they are coming out of, rather than the people they are directed at.

  7. Roger Sweeny says:

    I think KC is wrong. Leslie Winkle (the Sarah Gilbert character) is not portrayed as “clearly smarter” than Sheldon Cooper (the Jim Parsons character). Rather, she is in the same league as Leonard, Howard, and Rajesh, the other three male leads.

    Sheldon is smarter than all of them. But he is also socially awkward, full of delusion, full of himself, and a bit of a bully. At once lovable and yucky, he is the main character the same way Archie Bunker was the main character of “All in the Family.”

    If the show featured a Shelley instead of a Sheldon, I fear Natalie Angier would be writing that it discourages women from going into physics because the main character is such a narrow, damaged human being, and no woman wants to be that way.

    (Of course, the other three male leads–and Leslie Winkle–are messed up in their own ways. But as Slappy the Squirrel would say, “That’s comedy.”)

  8. With all due respect Roger you must not be a regular watcher of the show….on two seperate episodes Winkle has shown up Sheldon in her superior knowledge of physics, she has been sited by Howard and Rajesh as a neccesary presence to blunt Sheldon’s tyranny. This is why Sheldon doesn’t want her and Leonard to date.

    And yes as fully functional people all the characters on the show are horribly flawed, but aren’t all people?

  9. Love that show! I’m not sure I get any points, though, for admitting that I could probably be friends with those characters.

  10. Roger Sweeny says:


    I confess to not having seen every episode. But I think I’ve seen most of them. Sheldon and Leslie certainly don’t like each other but I get the impression it is because 1) they work on (and believe in) competing theories, 2) Leslie doesn’t take Sheldon’s sh*t, and 3) well, the audience doesn’t have to know a reason; they can just accept it as one of show’s givens and enjoy the comic possibilities.

    One of those comic possibilities is their throwing nerdy zingers at each other. Another is Leslie taking Sheldon down a notch. He is, after all, a bully and way too full of himself.

    I have never gotten the impression that Leslie’s knowledge of physics or her brainpower is in general superior to Sheldon’s. In some areas and in some ways, yes, which makes for the comedy since Sheldon thinks he is a superior being in every important way.

    (I agree that we are all flawed, but show’s characters are considerably more flawed than most–and in a considerably more funny way.)

  11. Andy Freeman says:

    > Sheldon is smarter than all of them.

    No. He’s merely given to stating facts that lead him to dumb conclusions.

    > At once lovable and yucky, he is the main character the same way Archie Bunker was the main character of “All in the Family.”

    While everyone gets a turn, the “main character” is Leonard and Leonard and Penny’s relationship. (They almost screwed that up by getting them together. See Cheers for why that doesn’t work.)

  12. Roger Sweeny says:

    That’s an interesting question: which would diminish the show more, the loss of Jim Parsons (Sheldon) or Johny Galecki (Leonard)? I’ve come to think of Sheldon as Vinnie Barbarino and Leonard, Howard, and Rajesh as the Sweathogs–but Leonard is certainly more important than any individual sweathog ever was.

  13. Donalbain says:

    The Big Bang Theory is a symptom rather than the disease itself. Sadly, society sees scientists as pathetic nerds. At a dinner party it is considered acceptable to laugh and say you know nothing about science, but if you laugh and say you know nothing about art or politics, you are considered a social dunce. Similarly, in a pub conversation, science is not considered relevant or interesting and the same stereotypes about the nerd or the crazy professor still hold sway. In the media it is very rare for a scientist to be portrayed as just another guy who has a job in the way that lawyers and doctors and teachers can just be ordinary guys who have a job. Also, in the media, scientists are almost ALWAYS men. Sadly, that is a reflection of a reality, but I suspect that it has a role in shaping the reality as well. Which is very sad, since all the big questions we will face in the next 50 years are scientific ones, and even if not everyone wants to be a scientist, everyone should have an interest in those questions and the way that they are answered.

    As you may have guessed I am a former scientist who now teaches science!

  14. Donalbain – I think that depends on what dinner parties you go to. No one in my social circle will admit to knowing anything about art, even if we just had a long debate about the latest installation at the Tate Modern.

    I am not sure what you mean about science not being relevant or interesting in pub conversations – unless the group is capable of conducting a scientific experiment at the moment, science generally isn’t that interesting in pub debates, as doing science generally involves doing research, or at least hunting down other people’s research papers, that isn’t compatible with having a drink and chatting with your mates.

    Which is very sad, since all the big questions we will face in the next 50 years are scientific ones

    What’s scientific about the conflict between Israel and Palestine? Or terrorist groups lurking in Pakistan? Or what should be done about Iran? (We may be able to disprove some scientific theories based on what happens there, but each case is unique enough that I don’t think science can really provide an answer as to what to do.

    Or how much money should be spent on the elderly as the population ages? Or should we limit healthcare? Or basically any other argument about the allocation of resources? Surely that’s a matter for philosophy more than science? Science isn’t very good at normative answers, although admittedly neither is philosophy.

    I’m very fond of science, but I do think it’s possible to overstate its value.

  15. “What’s scientific about the conflict between Israel and Palestine?”

    The fact that the whole region is going to run out of water in a couple decades, so the engineering required to build desalinization plants (and the power generation to run them) will be vital to any lasting peace? Pretty much any invention that will raise the standard of living of the Palestinians so their state can be functional? Any way to reduce the influence of oil?

    Same for Iran and Pakistan. In order for them to be functioning societies (and thus not cause huge problems due to instability), a whole lot of stuff is going to have to be invented.

    There are nonscientific elements, but the science is a big part.

  16. Donalbain says:

    Those are, essentially local issues. But even there, as jb said, the science matters. Why is Iran rich enough to build nukes? Because of oil. How can we stop giving them money? Build other sources of energy. Science!

    The major issue of our times is the climate, and the probable wars that it will cause.

  17. Jb – plenty of people fight when water isn’t a problem. For example, WWI and WWII. Perhaps desalinization plants will produce peace, or help keep it when it happens, but I don’t know how you can test that hypothesis scientifically as we will never know the counter-factual.

    I don’t see how stopping Iraq’s future flows of money would prevent it from building nukes in a few years’ time. And what happens if science doesn’t come up with a better energy source?

    You also appear to be assuming that the reasons that Palestine, Iran and Pakistan don’t have well-functioning societies is that there haven’t been enough inventions. But there have been enough inventions to support far better functioning societies in places as diverse as the USA, Sweden, Botswana (apart from the Aids problem which admittedly is a really big exception) and Australia. It may be that inventing more stuff is what is necessary to turn every country into a functioning one, but I don’t see how you can be confident that this is the case. It strikes me as at least as plausible to argue that the USA, Sweden, Botswana and Australia function as well as they do because for idiosyncratic reasons they acquired a legal and political system that supports prosperity.

    The major issue of our times is the climate, and the probable wars that it will cause.</i

    But the decision of how much resources to allocate to climate-caused problems versus other needs is a values-decision. Science can’t tell us what’s right and wrong.