"The Big Bang Theory" and real science, from Leonard's wedding vows to the "Time Machine" prop

How the beloved sitcom talked about science, as seen in "The Matrimonial Momentum" and "The Nerdvana Annihilation"

Published May 16, 2019 3:10PM (EDT)

"The Big Bang Theory" (Monty Brinton/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
"The Big Bang Theory" (Monty Brinton/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Excerpted with permission from "The Science of The Big Bang Theory: What America’s Favorite Sitcom Can Teach You about Physics, Flags, and the Idiosyncrasies of Scientists" by Mark Brake. Copyright 2019 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

"The Big Bang Theory" is undeniably popular and influential in shaping public attitudes to science and scientists, and yet there are few books that explore the show’s culture and social dimension, and the science that sits behind the script. "The Science of the Big Bang Theory" does just that. It’s at times a light-hearted, and other times a hard-hitting, science companion to the TV show. It looks behind the comedy scenes and scripts of the show to provide you with the kind of dissection of the science and culture you’d need to understand “math, science, history, unraveling the mysteries, that all started with the big bang! Hey!” as they say in the show’s theme song. 

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The Matrimonial Momentum and the Evolution of Particles

In “The Matrimonial Momentum,” Season 9, Episode 1, Leonard’s wedding vows invoke the evolution of particles.

[Democritus says:] “By convention sweet is sweet, by convention bitter is bitter, by convention hot is hot, by convention cold is cold, by convention color is color. But in reality, there are atoms and the void. That is, the objects of sense are supposed to be real and it is customary to regard them as such, but in truth they are not. Only the atoms and the void are real.” —Democritus (460–370 BC), as described by Diogenes Laërtius (third century AD)

It All Started with the Big Bang!

As the Barenaked Ladies song goes, “Our whole universe was in a hot, dense state/Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started . . . a fraction of a second and the elements were made . . . it all started with the big bang!” And, as Sheldon and Leonard are physicists who study matter in motion, all potential roads of inquiry lead back to the big bang. That’s where it all began, at least according to a consensus of physicists today. Every scrap of physical matter and energy bears witness to this history, which is why scholars spend so much time learning how to read its evidential traces. Astrophysicists scour the earth for evidence of things that happened long ago, but not necessarily far away.

First up: matter is made of atoms. As has been pointed out elsewhere in this book, this idea was established long ago. Ingenious ancient Greeks, such as Democritus and Epicurus, were the first Atomists. And yet the idea that the mass of each atom is centered at its nucleus came much later. In the early twentieth century, Ernest Rutherford, the son of Scottish immigrant farmers born at the edge of empire in 1871, became the father of nuclear science, a great charismatic figure who mapped the landscape of the sub-atomic world. He charted the atom’s constituent parts, discovered that elemental decay was the cause of radiation, and became the first true alchemist in the history of science when he forced platinum to change into gold.

The physicists soon found that the mass of an atom consists mostly of the protons and neutrons in its nucleus. The exception to this is simple hydrogen, whose nucleus is a sole proton. The total number of neutrons and protons in an atom’s nucleus gives its atomic weight. And from this nano-scale architecture (for instance, a helium atom has the size of 0.1 nanometers or 10-10 meters) derives much of the structure of our macro-world.

Second, matter is also frozen energy. This fact is packed into Albert Einstein’s most famous equation of e = mc2. In plain English, energy is equal to mass, multiplied by the speed of light squared. As the speed of light is a rather large number (186,000 miles or 300,000 kilometers a second), Einstein’s innocuous-looking formula packs a lot of punch. It predicts that small amounts of mass harbor huge amounts of energy. And it accounts for cosmic events, such as the stars that burn for billions of years and more down-to-earth but dramatic incidents, such as why a small nuclear bomb the size of a satsuma can lay waste to Nagasaki.

The Elements Were Made

Physicists such as Sheldon and Leonard claim that these two ideas—that matter is made of atoms and is also a form of frozen energy—only make sense in the light of big bang theory. All matter is a product of universal history, and physicists account for the way things are because they were as they were at the very beginning. In other words, matter can be analyzed for data about the way in which the cosmos evolved.

Take the question of matter as frozen energy, for example. It is so because the cosmos began in a state of high energy, but cooled down and solidified into cold matter. Why did the cosmos cool? Because the expansion of the universe, mentioned in the Barenaked Ladies song, means that the same amount of energy in a larger and increasing volume of space results in a lower universal level of energy. In short, energy froze out into matter.

As to the question of why matter is actually made of atoms, the answer also lies in the big bang. The light and simple elements of hydrogen, helium, and lithium were first fused in the early minutes of the cosmic expansion, as the universal energy cooled and neutrons and protons were able to get together to form the nuclei of atoms. But here’s where the Barenaked Ladies song got it wrong. It’s not the case that “a fraction of a second and the elements were made.” The rest of the chemical elements, those heavier than hydrogen, helium, and lithium, were forged later, in the cores of stars.

One of the first physicists to realize that the big bang could not have made any elements heavier than lithium was Italian Nobel-Prize winning scientist Enrico Fermi. Fermi had a dark sense of humor. It was he who jokingly took bets on whether the earth’s atmosphere would be set on fire at the first detonation of a nuclear device, the Trinity test, on July 16, 1945. Fermi was mocking concerns that the fission explosion of the bomb might trigger runaway fusion of the nitrogen that makes up over 70 percent of the air that surrounds the entire planet!

It’s the same kind of fusion that happens in the very cores of stars. Stars like our sun burn differently from how things on earth do. Here on earth, when something burns, such as wood, a chemical reaction with oxygen occurs. But stars are made mostly of hydrogen gas, and hydrogen is what usually burns at the star’s core. That’s due to a star’s size, and the fact it’s so packed with particles that the temperature at its center is around 16 million degrees centigrade. That’s hot enough to burn the hydrogen into helium gas. In the case of the sun, this burn is at the rate of about 4 million tons of gas every second, which is the same energy as seven trillion nuclear explosions, every second. A star is essentially a bomb that goes off slowly.

Stars like the sun never really die. They simply spend their lives changing the fuel for their fires. They may spend most of their lives burning hydrogen into helium, but in time they can burn carbon, oxygen, and silicon too. Indeed, there are different life journeys a star can take. And each journey depends on the strength of the star’s fire. But whichever way they go, stars recycle their viscera out into space, ejecta richly made of the chemicals created inside the stars. And that star stuff is a future part of the interstellar mixture, an ingredient of the cosmic recipe for a new generation of stars to be made out of the old.

Rewriting the Wedding Vow

Back in the 1940s and 1950s, physicists made the same mistake as the Barenaked Ladies and tried to explain the cosmic presence of all the chemical elements from the big bang theory alone. Until, that is, along came British physicist Fred Hoyle. A talented popularizer of science who made regular appearances on TV and radio and also wrote sci-fi, Fred had a good grasp of math and theoretical physics, but also possessed a penchant for unpopular concepts.

Indeed, Fred is even credited with coining the term “big bang.” During a 1949 BBC radio broadcast, he said: “These theories were based on the hypothesis that all the matter in the universe was created in one big bang at a particular time in the remote past.” It is often thought that Fred, who favored the alternate “steady state” cosmological model, intended this as an insult. But he later denied it, saying it was merely a striking way to contrast the two models.

In the late 1950s, Fred led a group of anti-big bang physicists who finally showed how the heavier elements originate in stars. The stellar fusion reactions were the engine of elements heavier than carbon. Along with Caltech scholar William Fowler, and husband and wife astronomers Geoffrey and Margaret Burbidge, Fred set out the details of eight fusion reactions that turned light elements into heavy ones. Once made, these elements are recycled into space through stellar winds, red giants, and supernovae.

And so perhaps a more accurate wedding ceremony vow from Leonard would have been “Penny, we are made of particles that have existed since the beginning of cosmic time. Those atoms went on a journey over 14 billion years, brewed up by stars and supernovae, and sailing through space on stellar winds to create us, so that we could be together and make each other whole.”

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The Nerdvana Annihilation and Time Machines 

In “The Nerdvana Annihilation,” Season 1, Episode 14, the friends buy a time machine.

 Time-Share Time Machine

Imagine being in Leonard’s position. On an internet auction, you accidentally, with your friends along as witness, buy a full-size prop of the time machine from the original 1960 movie The Time Machine. Admittedly, at first you thought such a famous piece would sell for thousands. You didn’t dream that your $800 bid would ever meet with success. Indeed, you may not even have $800 to waste on such a venture, but Sheldon, Raj, and Howard each contribute $200, with a view to make it a “time-share time machine” and go for joint ownership. And yet, when the time machine arrives, you realize it truly is a full-blown prop, and you’re faced with the struggle of hoisting its bulk several floors without the aid of an elevator.

Now, Penny may have wittily described your new toy as looking like “something Elton John would drive through the Everglades,” but this truly is a collector’s piece. When MGM designed the prop for the 1960 movie of H.G. Wells’s famous story, they created a steampunk dream. Designed by director George Pal and MGM art director William Ferrari, the pair plumped for the look of a horse-drawn sled, inspired by winter sled rides of Pal’s boyhood. The machine was made with a traditional barber’s chair, which Pal picked, as it was reminiscent of the kind of pilot’s seat a time traveler might need. Pal produced what many believe to be the best and most elegant time travel contraption: all brass, glass, and dials. With its red leather padded seat, it is exactly the kind of beast you imagine a Victorian time-traveling gent would “drive.”

And yet there’s a huge hitch in all this. Sadly, George Pal’s wonderful steampunk erection, built by designer Wah Chang, was destroyed in a fire at Pal’s Bel-Air house in November 1961. In short, the time sled no longer exists. Sure, you could always try recreating the steampunk stunner, as they clearly did for “The Nerdvana Annihilation,” but what other time machine picks might be on the market to decorate your nerdy apartment, and show off your inner geek? Let’s consider a few iconic options from the brief history of time machines.

Time Machine Pickers

Talk of iconic time machines must surely mean, first and foremost, the TARDIS. Named after the less than catchy title of Time and Relative Dimension in Space, this time machine from Doctor Who is a fairly faithful fit of the police telephone boxes that were seen on the streets of Britain in the early sixties. Some other facts that might impress nerdy visitors to your apartment: the police box design is trademarked by the BBC, despite the fact that the design was originally created by the London Metropolitan Police. The word TARDIS also appears in the Oxford English Dictionary. Given that the iconic TARDIS has been seen in marketing pitches by Apple and Google, among many others, your friends surely couldn’t help but be impressed. A word of warning, however. This police box is about nine feet tall, and maybe three and a half feet wide and deep. You’ll need a pretty big apartment to squeeze in this kind of decorative talking piece.

If the TARDIS proves tricky in terms of apartment living space, you could always plump for the Phone Booth as your pick. Clearly based on the TARDIS itself, the Phone Booth hails from the comic time-traveling 1988 movie, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. While the Phone Booth doesn’t have the sheer quirkiness of the TARDIS, and can’t match the TARDIS boast of having traveled over 100 trillion years from before the Big Bang to the edge of time itself, the Phone Booth does have the cool catchphrase “Gentlemen, we’re history,” as well as associated sequels, animations, video games, and even theme park rides. Hell, if you could make the Phone Booth airtight, you could turn it into an aquarium, which Sheldon would surely approve of. Visitors to your apartment could be reminded that, like the TARDIS, your Phone Booth is part of a rich science fiction history of time machines. It’s a history that goes back to an 1887 story, El Anacronópete, by Spanish diplomat Enrique Gaspar. Featuring a time machine as an elaborate and hermetically sealed ark, Gaspar’s story started the early craze for time travel rich in clocks, watches, and lush furniture, but low on the actual mechanics of time travel physics, naturally.

If even the Phone Booth pick still proves too bulky for your living space, you could consider a time machine replica that’s a little more compact and bijou. Enter the Outlandish Watch, one of the very first temporal gadgets. It was invented by Charles Dodgson, better known to the world as Lewis Carroll, renowned children’s and fantasy author most famous for his Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Dodgson’s tiny time machine appeared in the 1889 story Sylvie and Bruno, which he wrote under the name of Carroll. The watch has two modes, both easily recreated, at least in spirit. If the reverse peg was pushed, then “events of the next hour happen in reverse order.” The other mode involved the watch’s hands. They could be moved backward, as much as a month, enabling the wearer of the watch to travel into the past. Your replica could either be wall-mounted, along with Alice in Wonderland signs declaring “Wind Me!” or “Push Me!” or else worn as a kind of Victorian steampunk time device, a nineteenth-century wearable tech. And if all this sounds a little too quaint and English for your American visitors, you could lighten their load by telling them the first time-piece time travel device was invented by US newspaperman and author Edward Page Mitchell, in his 1881 story, The Clock That Went Backward.

Many other time machine picks are simply too impractical for normal living spaces. For example, the projector-collector contraption from the 1995 movie Twelve Monkeys enabled Bruce Willis to be pinged back in time to trace the outbreak of a deadly virus. Even if we ignore the entire Gothic laboratory in which the time capsule sits, and focus on the diaphanous tube in which Willis is sent, naked, through the fabric of space-time, we’re still talking about something the size of a cylindrical and horizontal glass TARDIS. Something similar goes for the time machine from the 2012 movie Looper. It looks a lot like a space capsule with a bunch of spaghetti wiring, and two huge batteries fixed to the door. Leaving aside the physics of how such a thing might actually achieve time travel, it may inspire visitors, but again at a cost to losing living space. Even worse, potential pick time machines, such as the Time Displacement Sphere from the trilogy of Terminator movies and the Accelerating Chamber from the alternative history TV series The Quantum Leap, simply defy description, as the production team seem to have lost their nerve on deciding what a time machine might look like!

And that leaves us with the final pick: the coolest time-traveling car in the history of science fiction. Sure, there have been other cool and collectable sci-fi vehicles: The Tumbler Batmobile from Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Anakin’s pod racer, the Flying Taxicab from Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, the Police Spinner from the original Blade Runner movie, or even the Lexus 2054 from The Minority Report. But none compares with the De Lorean DMC-12 from the Back to the Future movies. Visitors would surely be astounded that the slickest of all sci-fi vehicles started off in a car factory in 1980s Belfast. Yes, Northern Ireland was the place of origin for Doc Emmett Brown’s legendary nuclear-powered time machine. And not only is the De Lorean one of the ultimate sci-fi cars, but as there are still around 6500 DMC-12s in existence, it’s actually possible to go out and get one! You might even travel through time if you could ever work out how the “flux capacitor” works, or managed the necessary 2.1GigaWatts of energy at 88mph. The good Doc might have been right when he said, “If you're gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?” but one thing’s become clear in all of this picking history we’ve pondered: you’re going to need a bigger apartment.

By Mark Brake

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