Up to speed with TBBT

I have been a fan of The Big Bang Theory show for a while now and I’ve been thinking on and off about its use as an outreach tool, that’s to say I was eager to use the references made in TBBT episodes about physics and science as a handle on the public curiosity to know more of what might lie behind them. I gave it a go on this post of mine a while ago but haven’t gotten back to it ever since.

This past Summer I attended a Teachers Workshops organized by ESA, the European Space Agency, and I had the chance to discuss with inspired folks from all over EU. As I compared notes on practices and challenges in education at 360 degrees, I brought TBBT idea up with a colleague from Scotland and she strongly encouraged me to go forth with that here on my blog. So, thanks to Eileen, here’s my first instance of “Up to speed with TBBT”, where the rhyme is of course intended 😉

Let me start this thread with episodes from Season 9.

  • Episode 1 “The Matrimonial Momentum”. In physics momentum is used to describe mass in motion: it can be linear or angular, according to the motion being a straight trajectory or a rotation. It depends on mass and velocity, that is to say: how fast a mass is moving, how large the mass is and how this mass is distributed in space.
    A typical example of angular momentum is the one of a skater, which also shows how momentum is conserved: when the skater pulls her arms back, she reduces the spread of her mass in space, which gives her body the ability to turn faster on herself than she was doing with her arms wide open.
  • Episode 2 “The Separation Oscillation”. When something oscillates it goes from one position or state to another, like a pendulum or my mood these days. Oscillation is the subject of this year Nobel in Physics, which awarded yet another acknowledgement to the understanding of neutrinos. They are called the chameleons of space because they can change clothes as they move at almost the speed of light and, believe it or not, they are going through your bodies in droves as you read about them, which is why they can only be caught with detectors like this one

Dr Neil DeGrasse Tyson in Super-Kamiokande Neutrino Detector – (Image Credit: facebook.com/COSMOSonTV).

  • Episode 3, “The Bachelor Party Corrosion”. In this episode Sheldon is kidnapped in a van, not just any van but Richard Feynman’s, the late Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech. Feynman is famous for playing bongos (as Sheldon does in a previous episode) and for inventing some hieroglyphs that helped physicists communicate and calculate the effects of a theory in the making: these pictograms came to be known as Feynman diagrams and are part of the advancements for which Feynman received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965. This is more than enough for anyone to paint them on his van, as Feynman did.

    Professor Feynman poses with his family in front of his van, which he decorated with instances of his very own visual handle on particle physics.

    Professor Feynman poses with his family in front of his van, which he decorated with instances of his very own visual handle on particle physics.

  • Episode 4, “The 2003 Approximation”. In this episode Sheldon’s bothered by the many changes he’s unwillingly going through: due to disruptive discontinuities in his life he can no longer function under the same paradigm he’s followed until then. Just like he’d do with a new, buggy operation system on his laptop or smartphone, he decides to go back to a previous version, in which he was more stable and efficient. I used the expressions “paradigm” and “version” but I could as well said “model”. In fact in science an approximation is a model that accurately describes a phenomenon under certain circumstances but it’s not the whole story: it doesn’t mean the model is wrong but just that you can’t use it for every situation. The Standard Model of particle physics is a good working theory of most of the known elementary phenomena but it does not explain neutrinos’ masses … or dark matter … or dark energy. I plan to talk about the dark side of the universe in a dedicated post but let me stop here for now coz Saturday night is laundry night 😉

Before concluding I’d like to extend my warmest greetings to Eileen and all the teachers from UK who welcomed me in their group, for both professional exchanges and a lot of craic!