March 12, 2013

EVENSEN: A Theory About the Big Bang

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Call me Dr. Leonard Hofstadter. If you haven’t yet experienced CBS’s hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory, drop this article immediately and borrow or buy the first season. This hilariously clever commentary on the intersection of academics and real life is the most viewed TV comedy in the U.S. and Canada. The series, now in its sixth season, follows the quotidian adventures of four genius scientists as they conduct research, relish their painfully nerdy hobbies and attempt to interact with the not-so-intelligent, but gorgeous, aspiring actress living across the hall.

To those of you as addicted as I am to this show and its captivating characters, let me postulate the following hypothesis: the similarities between The Big Bang Theory’s four lead male protagonists and Cornell grad students are uncanny. Consider the following character traits:

1. Erudite but unnecessarily esoteric.

Ask Big Bang favorite Dr. Sheldon Cooper to pass the jam, and you will likely endure a complete history of fruit preservation dating back to its origins in the Middle East and introduction to Europe during the Crusades. He will comprehensively detail the differences between spreads, jams, jellies, preserves, marmalades, conserves and chutneys. I experience a similar phenomenon anytime I question a friend about how the burritos are at Manndible, or when a campus visitor asks me how to get from Schoellkopf to Willard Straight. We are stolidly incapable of sharing the relevant data without volumes of additional unsolicited, irrelevant material. Relatedly, why, when relaxing over a beer at the day’s end, does someone always find it apropos to link the pleasantly banal chit-chat to his latest attempt at multi-level structural equation modeling with latent variables?

2. Hopeless social awkwardness

While we don’t all have pathological fears of speaking with the opposite sex, or presuppose our performance in role playing games is integral to our self-worth, or spend half our stipend (and New Year’s Eve) in the comic book store, we’re far from social paragons. Sure, anomalies exist among us, but I’d wager most grad students can perform far better at describing the psychology or physical chemistry of picking someone up in a bar than actually being successful in the act.

3. Exhibiting a quirky fashion sense that astonishes and appalls

Argyle sweaters? Abusive reliance on turtlenecks? Superhero and Star Trek T-shirts? Big Bang characters have it all, as do grad students. Beyond stereotypical garments, just ask yourself when was the last time you observed a grad student who made a conscious decision about how shoes complemented his or her attire? Be honest, age aside, when you board the TCAT, you can heuristically conclude in a second who the grad students are.  And I haven’t even touched on tweed jackets or some of these guys’ facial hair.

4. Propensity to explain everything (ironically, even our own social awkwardness) in terms of our theory du jour.

How many mornings have you just wanted some coffee to ease that pounding in your head when the person in front of you in line drops, “Well, it’s exactly as Foucault would say …” or “Latour has so much to offer on that topic …” Nevermind that the speaker is equivocating over light vs. dark roast. Yes, instances occur in which an application of Schrödinger’s cat can actually aid decision making, but next time you use social representations theory to explain your eccentric social relations, please realize your use of the theory is likely the explanation itself.

5. Being cool in their own right.

Yes, the Big Bang characters are stereotypically awkward and painfully oblivious at times, but viewers both cherish and respect them. Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Raj are weird, but likable. Frankly, most of the time, we would not want them to change. I exhibit all the aforementioned character traits (as do most of my friends), but I feel any other lifestyle would be a diminished one. Owning one’s eccentricity is a gift — one that many graduate students possess.

Darrick Nighthawk Evensen is a graduate student in the Department of Natural Resources and the graduate student-elected trustee. He may be reached at dte6@cornell.edu. Trustee Viewpoint appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Darrick Nighthawk Evensen