By now, if you are a scientist who is not aware of the sitcom ‘Big Bang Theory‘ then you would be best buds with Sheldon Cooper because you are completely out of touch with reality (or you just need to get out of the lab more!) Sheldon Cooper…excuse me, Dr. Cooper…is a quirky theoretical physicist with the social skills of a toddler and a dominating character on the show, now in its sixth season on CBS.
But as I watch the show (on the verge of snorting laughter at the comical spoof of researchers), my mind sometimes wanders to the question—why is Sheldon Cooper so freakishly funny? Honestly, many opinions portrayed by Sheldon in the series are hugely stereotypical and just plain insulting to the science community, which weirdly doesn’t deter me from watching the show.
In my mind, Sheldon Cooper epitomizes everything that is wrong with mentoring in the sciences, wrapped up into one defined but awkward package. I think the ability to laugh at the faults of the system creates an opportunity for us in science to maintain an open dialogue on mentoring issues…after all, if the writers/producers of a TV show recognize the idiosyncrasies surrounding scientists then we also need to acknowledge and address these issues.
In case you are not familiar with the show or have forgotten all the gentle insults, here is a short list justifying why Sheldon Cooper should win the “world’s worst research mentor” award:
1. Sheldon frequently refers to the inferior intellectually ability of females and downplays the contributions of women in science.
Example clip (Season 1, Episode 13 – The Bat Jar Conjecture): Female physicist Leslie Winkle bitterly explains her hatred of Sheldon Cooper for his chauvinistic comments about women in science.
2. Sheldon continuously asserts his snobbery that basic research is superior to applied research.
Example clip (Season 1, Episode 15 – The Pork Chop Indeterminacy): Sheldon is insulted when his sister calls him a “rocket scientist”.
3. Sheldon suffers from a complex that I like to call the “PhD syndrome”—a false state of grandeur where one believes that only people with a PhD degree deserve to be taken seriously in science.
Example clip (Season 1, Episode 13 – The Bat Jar Conjecture): Sheldon discounts Wolowitz’s ability to contribute to answering Physics Bowl questions because, after all, everyone knows that Wolowitz doesn’t even have his PhD!
Discussion Point: Can we use comedy to promote open dialogue on issues with mentoring in the sciences?