Tuesday, September 16, 2008

SCIENCE- Paul Dirac and the Big Bang Theory

I occasionally catch an episode of The Big Bang Theory on television. (I've loved Chuck Lorre since Cybil.) It’s a little broad for my tastes but I respect the fact that they seem to go out of their way to get both the geek references and the pseudo-scientific double talk in the ballpark of plausibility. But I wonder sometimes if the biggest joke in the series is intentional or not.

You see, I’m convinced that the tall skinny geek is modeled on 20th century physicist Paul Dirac. (I confess that I don’t watch the thing enough to know the names of the two main characters. For the purposes of this post I will refer to them as the tall skinny geek and the whiny Roseanne alumnus.) Even in the time of Einstein and Schrödinger, Heisenberg and Oppenheimer, Paul Dirac stood out as an intellect (he shared the 1933 Nobel Prize with Schrödinger) and also somewhat of a character. He was tall and slight, considered extremely shy and a little socially awkward. Someone once joked that 90% of his vocabulary was “yes”, “no”, and “I don’t know”. He once introduced his new bride to a friend by saying “This is [Hungarian physicist Eugene] Wigner’s sister, who is now my wife.”

At another time he was talking to a colleague (either Rudolf Peierls or Peter Kapitza, depending on who’s telling the story) who’s wife was in the room knitting. After watching her for a while he tells her that “There is a topologically inequivalent way of doing what you are doing.” Of course she asks him what he’s talking about and he shows her an alternate knitting stitch. The woman then informs him that what he’s doing is called purling.

Replying to a student who had told him “I don’t understand the second equation.” He once said “That is a statement, not a question.”

Dirac kidded Robert Oppenheimer about his love of poetry. He once said, "The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way. The two are incompatible."

But there are two Dirac stories that make me sure that the tall skinny geek on The Big Bang Theory is based on the erstwhile physicist. The first is when someone making small talk with him at a banquet mentioned that the weather was blustery. Dirac got up and left the dinner table only to return in a few minutes to say that, yes, he had checked and it was indeed windy outside.

The second story could have come straight from the show itself. Dirac once postulated that there must be a optimal distance from which to view a woman’s face. Not so close that minor wrinkles and blemishes are too apparent or that the face is distorted but not so far away that one bit of the important detail is lost. After explaining his theory at a party once, another physicist asked him how close he had ever BEEN to a girl.

Holding his hands a couple of feet apart he said, “About this close.”

Maybe I’m just projecting Dirac onto the tall skinny geek. I don’t think the whiny Roseanne alumnus is actually a caricature of Einstein (though the hair is suspicious). It’s not likely that the creators of the Big Bang sitcom purposefully styled the character on an actual person. But the parallels are there. Even down to the character’s inherent sweetness. Niels Bohr said that of all the people in physics, Dirac had the purest soul.

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