Friday, April 11, 2014

Sheldon's farewell to string theory: a fun episode with some serious problems

For almost 7 years, I have been an enthusiastic fan of The Big Bang Theory. The CBS sitcom is in its seventh season. Each episode lasts 20 minutes or so. So far, 155 episodes have been aired. I am pretty sure that I've seen every single one of them – on average, I've watched an episode of TBBT 3 times – partly in the original, partly in the Czech dubbing which I started to love pretty soon. The initial seasons have a higher number of views than the newest ones.

So you may see that I have spent something like 155 hours of quality time with the sitcom. This figure vastly understates how important the sitcom has been in the scheme of my cultural inspiration. Last week, on April 3rd, they aired the 154th episode, The Indecision Amalgamation, which was the last problem-free one. Sheldon was deciding whether to buy XBOX or a new PlayStation, Raj had to simultaneously deal with two potential girlfriends, and Penny got a useless advice from a frustratingly nostalgic Wil Wheaton on whether she should accept an offer in a bad movie.

I could get used to the comical yet unrealistic obsession of the boys (including Sheldon Cooper) with the science-fiction banalities, to the fact that Leonard's kids won't have a good view of a parade, and to Jim Parsons' being gay (he is still the same excellent actor as he was before even though as a member of the Shamy club [sorry, this was a typo, I originally meant the Shenny club!], I would have preferred to have never learned about it). However, what the yesterday's (April 10th) 155th episode, The Relationship Diremption, did with the main hero could have been an instant dealbreaker for me.

In fact, the original title of this blog post when it was a draft was "My velvet divorce with TBBT". :-)

But I learned not to overreact and when I saw the actual "Sheldon leaves string theory" episode, I saw some silver linings, too.

The three boys in the school dining hall are sort of excited with the BICEP2 discovery of the primordial gravitational waves – it is impressive how current events quickly make it to the story: one of the silver linings – and Sheldon isn't. As a theoretical physicist, he should be, they rightfully point out. But he says something weird for the first time (in this episode). He is interested how the primordial gravitational waves help Joe Sixpack. That's silly because every theoretical physicist knows that these cutting-edge discoveries in pure science just don't affect Joe Sixpack's life at all. Cutting-edge fundamental physics just hasn't been relevant for any practical applications for many decades.

Now, Leonard replies like that:
Oh my god, you're jealous. [Why?] Maybe because the cosmic inflation just got proven. The Higgs field got proven and you've been working on string theory for the last 20 years and you're not closer to proving it than when you started.
Sheldon only replies that he had a lot on his plate and something about the golden age of TV. Barry Kripke, an eavesdropping lisping jerk at another table, told Sheldon that the LHC just proved string theory. Did they find SUSY or extra dimensions? No, Kripke says, only that Sheldon will believe anything. Sheldon asks why Barry would do that; he is a string theorist as well (huh!?). No, Kripke answers, he is a string pragmatist, not a string theorist. He is doing it for the grant money that he spends on some [lisping, not comprehensible]. Have I told you that Kripke was a jerk?

Let me actually address these things comments in the way that Sheldon should have but he has failed because the writers decided to turn him into a lame victim of harassment.

Sheldon has been working on string theory for 20 years, and so have many of us, but the cosmic inflation got its BICEP2 near-proof after 35 years and the Higgs field after 48 years. So 20 years is nowhere near the time scale after which ideas of a similar importance – and string theory is clearly grander, more important than the other two examples – typically get proven.

Moreover, Sheldon's work – a theoretical work – is not about "proving string theory". It's up to experimenters to "prove" theories (and theories are never really "proven", they are just shown to be more adequate descriptions of the observations than their predecessors). Sheldon is a theorist. He could be doing the theoretical work that allows the experimenters to do such things. But because it seems obvious – especially after BICEP2 – that the energy scale of "characteristic stringy phenomena" is between the GUT scale and the Planck scale, i.e. extremely high, competent people are just not losing much of their time with planning such experimental tests. They're almost certainly impossible in practice. Several parameters of the cosmic inflation that are being extracted from the CMB are the only exceptions but they're unlikely to be directly relevant for the question "to be stringy or not to be stringy, that is the question".

Another related thing that Sheldon could be doing would be to derive the properties of particles and fields in Nature – in our Universe – so that the retrodictions of these well-known properties could be as convincing as true predictions. For about 1 year (in total) among the nearly 20 years I've been connected to string theory, I would be thinking that it was realistically possible to "directly" attack the problem and deduce the unique predictions of string theory for the Universe around us. While I am not a believer in the anthropic reasoning of any sort, it seems obvious to me that there are lots of string vacua and even many string vacua that are probably "more or less on par" with the vacuum in the visible Universe. So it may be conceivable to pinpoint the right vacuum but it won't be the "first step" string theorists will make. A deeper understanding of the structure of the theory – and perhaps its prediction for the initial conditions of the Universe – has to be done before that.

So Leonard is assigning Sheldon a wrong type of a job, and even if it were the right job, the criticism of string theory relatively to the other theories doesn't work because those ideas got proven after a longer period of time than what Sheldon has spent on string theory.

Moreover, the very idea that an enthusiastic string theorist could be unexcited by the BICEP2 result or that it is not a general confirmation of the string theorist's attitude to research (not being afraid to look at phenomena at the GUT scale or Planck scale) is just wrong. String theory is compatible with the BICEP2 result – again, it's the only theory going beyond effective field theories that can address these things at all. And do string theorists care about inflation? How many pages about inflation and string theory they would write within weeks?

Well, look at the paper Inflation and String Theory that Daniel Baumann and (guest blogger) Liam McAllister released today. Yes, they submitted it hours before the TBBT episode about "Sheldon's breakup with string theory" was aired. The paper has 349 pages and 48 figures. It is a draft of a book that will be published by Cambridge University Press. You will find sections about "inflation after BICEP2" at various places, much like dozens of references to predicted tensor-to-scalar ratios.

At any rate, Sheldon – still in the cafeteria – asks the boys whether Kripke is right. Is he wasting his life on a theory that can never be proven? It's just silly. With his IQ of 187, has Sheldon asked this question to himself for the first time after 20 years? A sensible scientist tries to adjust his beliefs about what is true or untrue and what can be proven pretty much every minute. The beliefs about "provability of string theory" are no exception. I have never believed that string theory would be proven in any imaginable future at the level of transparency that would convince non-physicists that it is true. After all, they can't even get convinced that quantum mechanics is right. But even when it comes to theoretical physicists who refuse to learn string theory in a sufficiently comprehensive way, I've been almost always convinced that they wouldn't understand why it is really necessary to use string theory as the framework if we want to understand patterns in Nature that are unexplained (or inconsistently described) by effective quantum field theories.

So I have been excited about string theory despite this nearly self-evident absence of low-hanging fruits. String theory is simply not a subject for Joe Sixpack. It is not a subject for intellectually inferior pseudophysicists of the Woit-Smolin type, either. String theory is something that only 1 person among 100,000 may learn so that he or she understands why it has to be right, and only 1 person among 2,000,000 or so has actually learned to do something with string theory at the practical level. All of them are aware of this relatively esoteric character of the subject.

Sheldon and Penny start to talk about Sheldon's feelings in the morning even though Penny wouldn't understand. So Sheldon says that "[He] had devoted the prime of his life to string theory and its quest for the compactification of extra dimensions. [He's] done nothing to show for it and [he] feels like a fool." OK, Penny says, she got it. Not all the jibberjabber in the middle – it's compactification of extra dimensions, Penny, try to repeat, compactification – but she knows what it feels like to invest her heart into something and get nothing out of it. Do you mean your acting career, Sheldon asks? No. Your relationship with Leonard? No. Your failed attempt to go back to college? No!

Penny said that Sheldon and string theory is a relationship and she knows what it feels like when she realizes it will never be the way she had wanted. Sheldon objects that when he said "Leonard", Penny replied "No". She was talking about other guys, she clarifies the situation. What do you do, Penny? You have to have the courage to end the relationship. It's needed, it's how you grow.

Now, generally, Penny's recommendation is wise. But it's just totally irrelevant for Sheldon's situation. Just to remind you, Sheldon hasn't been looking for a "proof of string theory" that would convince Joe Sixpack. He's been working on lots of wonderful research projects – let me know if you need to know what Sheldon's most interesting papers and thoughts are – and those are the things that are supposed to make him feel satisfied. The advances in string theory which are mostly of theoretical or mathematical character – they are making fundamental physics more unified than ever – are making many string theorists happy. But if they don't make someone sufficiently happy, he may switch to something else.

But this "farewell" cannot be rationally ignited by an experimental discovery of a process in Nature that is partly related to but largely independent from the bulk of the research in string theory. String theorists are not competing with the experimenters and even if we compared the string theorists to the theorists whose theories are being confirmed, their connection with the experiments is very different (much less direct) and their focus on the mathematical depth is also very different (much more profound). So string theorists are doing their research with different goals than those who just focus on a particular pattern in the CMB. String theory is really a theory of everything and it is not just hype. Its being a TOE means that it reorganizes our views on how all fundamental processes in the Universe work.

Leonard blows his nose. In the cafeteria again, he asks Rajesh about dating two women. Fun jokes unrelated to string theory that could be in other episodes as well. Rajesh told Emily that he was dating two women at once, and she was OK with that. He tried the same with Lucy but her feelings were mixed. When Rajesh asked why Lucy couldn't be just like Emily who is so great, Lucy's feelings became less mixed. ;-)

Sheldon is getting rid of string theory books, Green-Schwarz-Witten (in green cover) is being taken from the box as he talks about the possibility to burn the books which would remind him of Texas. Sheldon makes mixed comments about his scribbles of ideas that gave him the Harvard Junior Fellowship, or whatever they call it in the show. ;-) Before Sheldon starts to cry and leaves, he says "I can't keep on postulating multidimensional entities and get nothing in return; he has his needs, too". I admit that I am laughing during such proclamations, too, even though they are conveying some misunderstanding of how theoretical physics works and why theoretical physicists work on it. But I am used to separate the lives in movies – fiction – from the real truth. That's also why I often root for the most unhinged climate alarmists in some of Hollywood's catastrophic movies. ;-)

Sheldon gets a new haircut "made by Penny"; a cross "Bill Gates meets Nikola Tesla". Leonard asks what Sheldon is going to pursue when he's done with string theory. Dark matter, black holes, other interesting areas. This is really silly. Tons of physicists work on this interface and they are jumping in between these topics and string theory all the time, or thinking about them simultaneously. Some of their parts are really closely related. A string theorist doesn't have to get a major new haircut whenever he starts to think about black holes (and maybe not even dark matter). The haircuts would be too frequent.

Amy sees Sheldon's new look. It's a problem. She doesn't want girls to see Sheldon as a sex on the stick. "She's right, I am too hot." Howard-Bernadette-Rajesh-Emily double date. Howard knows Emily, in a bad way. "Have we met before?" Emily asks. "No." But she figures it out.

Sheldon is looking for a new field. "Why do we have geology books? Did you throw parties for children, Leonard?" What's wrong with geology, Penny asks? It's the Kardashians of science. Sheldon is getting his good old self for a while, also explaining to Leonard that the Standard Model is less advanced than string theory (which overlooks the fact that many string theorists' – string phenomenologists' – work depend on a great mastery of the Standard Model; but I have already discussed that the show paints all questions in science as being completely isolated from each other which is just wrong).

Amy hints at nuclear matrix elements. Not too good. Leonard suggests loop quantum gravity. Sheldon's monkey-like reaction to that proposal is fortunately adequate so his meltdown couldn't have been so bad so far. Penny has a great idea – enjoy your freedom, don't rush, and maybe something will find you. A good advice, Sheldon thinks. He didn't look for string theory. It just hit him one day: a bully hit him with the biggest book he could find, a string theory book.

Now, this is funny but it's so wrong on so many levels. First of all, there weren't any "big books" of string theory 20 years ago. Second, it's just silly that one may become a string theorist because he's hit by a book. You can't study a string theory textbook with no prerequisites (or talent). You must be reasonably familiar with the whole pyramid of physics knowledge up to general relativity and quantum field theory (each of which has its own pyramid of prerequisites, too). And you usually know that you want to get at the tip of the skyscraper – currently string theory – for quite some time before you study it. Moreover, you must probably be "1 in 100,000" to have reasonable chances to learn string theory at a productive level.

A joke about Sheldon's drinking wine – predigested by a fungus.

Back to the double date. It already looks like Howard is saying stories about his being an astronaut and people like the mood when Emily suddenly remembers. They had a blind date a few years ago. He had serious stomach-toilet problems in Emily's apartment. It's OK for Emily. All her friends love the story; they call Howard "Clugzilla". Howard was anxious about that story a long time after they moved on.

A drunk Sheldon is being helped by Amy. Sheldon finds himself in a bed with someone. What have I done? A geology book. A similar scene as one after Penny slept with Rajesh. Nothing happened. Apparently, a drunk Sheldon called Stephen Hawking last night. Just a stupid message on an answering machine. Sheldon and Howard talk about their embarrassing evenings. Kripke is humiliating Sheldon again. Get out of here, Berry, Howard says. "What do you say, Clugzilla..." Sheldon concludes that this nickname is way too cool and won't go away.

Additional messages on Hawking's answering machine:
I gave up String Theory. You should give up black holes and we totally solve crimes together!"

You know what's great? Geology! Look at this Geo! That's fun to say: gee-ode. Gee-ode.

Gee-ode, gee-ode. I kiss girls now.

Hey, guess who I am? Beep-bop-boop-bop! I'm you! Get it?

Are you mad at me? Oh, no! You're mad at me! I'm so sorry! Beep-bop-boop-bop!

Thiospinel sulfide. Thiospinel sulfide. That's even more fun than gee-ode. Hey, did you see the new Lego movie?
Hawking says "What a jackass." Well, Sheldon was just drunk a little bit. They made a big deal out of it – as if Sheldon were the only drunk physicist who has left lots of funny messages on Hawking's answering machine.

So when I actually saw this problematic episode, it was still funny, rich in some physics jargon, and even addressing some deeper questions about the psychology of physicists – although it didn't do it right. But it's clear to me now that I won't abandon TBBT because of these blunders.


  1. Marcel van VelzenApr 11, 2014, 10:04:00 AM

    The “real guys” like Steven Weinberg and Murray Gell-Mann are nothing like those characters. Sorry.

  2. This is just a plain silly comment. First of all, neither Weinberg nor Gell-Mann are really string theorists. Second of all, you have cherry-picked folks who are both old and seriously-minded, unready for a sitcom. Third of all, there are people among top theoretical physicists who are like characters of TBBT - like Hawking, who *is* a TBBT character, after all.

    It's a complete misconception that good physicists must have similar personalities to Weinberg or Gell-Mann. Feynman didn't, and neither did Einstein or Newton or others. People in physics have different personalities; personality is not what they share.

  3. Marcel van VelzenApr 11, 2014, 10:34:00 AM

    Don’t tell me I have to explain you what these “cherry-picked folks who are both old and seriously-minded” have achieved. By comparing them to Einstein and Newton you already did.

  4. Well, I may have placed Einstein and Newton above them, thus proving that your comment that physicists aren't ready to be like characters on similar sitcomes is foolish.

  5. George ChristodoulidesApr 11, 2014, 10:53:00 AM

    Lubos i expected a more serious and reasonable answer from a guy that is in the field as long as you have and knows the system.
    the number of people are like the big bang theory characters are overrepresented in theoretical physics and physics in general because they are chosen and pushed by similar supervisors. and like i have mentioned before the kind of people that kicked you out.
    you know better than me that string theory is not a free market system.

  6. Apologies, I don't understand what you're saying. They're overrepresented in the sitcom (that much is a tautology) or in reality? What does it have to do with string theory's being or not being a "free market system" and what this proposition is supposed to mean, anyway?

    Universities are not a market producing supply and demand of something in a capitalist way. On the other hand, the competition on the string theory job market is as fierce and real as competition in the toughest parts of the actual capitalist markets.

    I haven't been kicked out; I have left the system myself. Please apologize for that libel or I will sue you and financially destroy you.

  7. Wow Sheldon no ...!!!

    When I saw in another blog by a corresponding headline on the right side bar which points to the darkest place in the internet, I thought the troll was meaning Sheldon Glashow (thought he could not be meaning Sheldon Cooper then ;-) ) ...

    Did you explicitely send this blog post to the writers of TBBT too ? Do they read TRF by the way? They should really learn that parts of this episode are not compatible with Sheldon's character ...

    However, I agree that TBBT will still be fun. And even though Sheldon has temprorarily lost some of his coolness, I still like him best ...

    And I greatly enjoyed reading the report about this episode here :-)

  8. Everybody apart from you knows that in a comedy series, characters are exagerated more or less (but in the case of TBBT the cool boys come near real physicists too), so what is the big deal here ?

  9. Marcel van VelzenApr 11, 2014, 11:55:00 AM

    The big deal is here just what i said!

  10. -1, Lumo's answer IS exactly serious and reasonable, conversenly to your aggressive comment ...

  11. Hi Dilaton, I won't bother them with that because I am sure that David Saltzberg knows what is unrealistic about the description of the work and goals and feelings in this episode, and he may have even told it to the writers. But they just decided they needed a Sheldon meltdown and this problematic combination of string theory with BICEP just did it for them...

  12. More seriously, I think the writers should show some more responsibility, as they know that this turn in the story will confirm trolls in their destructive attitudes and has a high potential make them even more aggressive. And it misrepresents physics to people who are not knowledgeable enough themself.

    These to me unexpected new story line (do you know if there is some kind of happy end in sight) my lead to funny dialogs etc that make one LOL anyway, but chances are high that it will also increase on low-level physics sites the number of trolling not-a-real-questions of people who dont know what they are talking about, starting with "In an episode of TBBT I have seen ..." involving bad confusions about the BICEP2 results, string theory, etc ... :-/

    The writers should know better and listen to David Saltzberg !

  13. Ok, so I knew there is no big deal, you are just inflating nothing largely out of proportion.
    You seem to maintain the same delusions as Joe anybodyfrom the street, who thinks that Scientists all have to weat white lab coats (including theoretical physicists) LOL :-D

  14. Marcel van VelzenApr 11, 2014, 12:23:00 PM

    There are people who got it all. They make the greatest contributions to physics (that have been experimentally confirmed and are still being confirmed every single day in all details) and live normal lives. There is just no excuse we are not like them. Don’t try this “yes they are geniuses but they are weird and outcasts” thing. Life is not fair, I know. Get over it

  15. Lubos, If string gas cosmology turns out to be the best explanation for the BICEP 2 results (blue curl) wouldn't that give string theory a tremendous boost?

  16. Im just average Joe Sixpack, but what I know String "theory" is not falsifiable and cannot be proven. It is so because there are millions of possible versions of String or Brane theory, ready to fit ANY possible experiment outcome. So there is no surprise that String "theory" is compatible with BICEP2 result, it is compatible with everything.

  17. Your comments here look like the ones of an immature teen, who tries to persuade the world to admire his personal idols and to immitate them, LOL :-D

    Please feel free to grow up and realize that physicists are real world people who have naturally different personalities, characters, etc and there is nothing wrong with this.

    BTW I know where you come from ... I have seen you on physics blogs where the standard of the comment sections are so low, that I have stopped reading them (even though the blog articles themself may still be interesting) ...


  18. I thought Kripke worked in robotics. ?? Do real theoretical physicists really have such passions for video games and comic books and (retch) Star Wars? Maybe the writers of TBBT needed these angles to draw in a wider general audience who could relate to these topics? The few physicists I've known personally, (not older guys) have had much more esoteric and sophisticated personal inteests and hobbies. i do love this show and hope Sheldon gets a grip. :-)

  19. Marcel van VelzenApr 11, 2014, 4:50:00 PM

    I remember that you were asked to “shut up” and was depicted as a troll. Not that I agree but that’s what I remember. However, I always like your comments, even if we never agree on anything!

    The "immature teen, who tries to persuade the world to admire his personal idols" was funny and as always there is some truth in this!

  20. 1) Kripke is smarter than Sheldon and better reduces to practice. He has rhotacism not a lisp,

    2) You are all wrong, Sabine Hossenfelder is correct. The universe is deterministic.
    arxiv:1404.1207 "Spontaneous Creation Of The Universe From Nothing"

    Personally, I would have preferred something less Lutheran.


  21. I'm curious, are all of these professors walking to campus? While windmills are raising electricity prices, coal is still the source here.

    Perhaps the signatories who are driving should be divested.

  22. If it worked and implied some insights, it would. I don't quite understand at this point how it could work, and if I were told that some calculation is confirmed, how I would use it to learn anything else. Maybe the good folks in SGC know what to do but it wouldn't give a boost to me.

  23. Hi Ann, I thought he had to be experiment-oriented, too. He constructed a robot that destroyed Howard's, right, and Howard is an engineer. So how could Kripke become a string theorist? Or both? For such a lisping jerk? ;-)

    No, typical/random professional theoretical physicists don't have this passion for sci-fi and comic books. I surely don't and no one else I know in the field does, as far as I can remember. But at my Alma Mater - Faculty of Maths and Physics in Prague - the strength of cults in Dungeons and Tolkien and various other things was arguably stronger than in a general society of the same age. I think that most of the fans of such things were programmers and mathematicians, however. Note that Sheldon is mostly designed according to some real-life programmer or something like that.

  24. 1) Even by purely numerical criteria, Kripke can't be smarter than Sheldon. You may calculate how many people in the world have IQ at 187 or higher. ;-)

    2) Sabine is a subpar physicist but she surely doesn't endorse your full-fledged crackpot delusions about determinism or anything else.

  25. I am disappointed in Harvard's tolerating aerobic respiration within its faculty, staff, and matriculants. If Harvard is determined to reductively blow it out its collective arse, then methanogenesis,

  26. I didn't realized his character was modeled on a programmer -- that would make some sense wrt the games/sci-fi stuff. BTW, I am also a SHAMY fan. And from the 'girls corner' perspective I like how the show has developed the threesome of Amy, Bernadette and Penny. I hated Leslie from the first season -- she was not an empathetic personality, she was 2-dimensional and wooden and never convincing as a theoretical mind/person. Amy and Bernadette have real ambitions/drives and they are vulnerable human beings (like the guys are) and their intelligence is convincing. It's fun to watch them dress up for girls' night out (Amy so wants to be glamorous and desirable, the way Leonard does in his own way, and yet at the end of the day she is driven more by her curiosity about her field, she's really a convincing character.) Then too, how pretty Penny reads her way very slowly through a comic book (was it Conan?) while the two brainy gals are done in about a minute. These are great little touches.

  27. I was thinking that if SGC does not solve the flatness problem, say, then string theorists might figure out another way to solve it using string theory, which would narrow down (to 1?) the number of possible vacua (or whatever the possible lowest energy states or whatever the solutions to string theory are called).

    Of course this would (wouldn't it?) invalidate the current inflationary explanation of the Big Bang, which is almost (but not quite) universally accepted by leading cosmologist I gather.

    But would this be the first time such a wholesale trashing of a formerly cherished theory? My own amateur take on the inflationary theory -- based on little more than aesthetic intuition and body language (!) -- is that the hypothesis seems almost too good to be true; that it solves too many problems too easily by positing unseen parts of and/or multiple universes that will possibly never be observed; that the scalar fields driving inflation are ad hock hypotheticals; and, finally -- if I may be so impertinent and presumptuous as to say so -- that based on his manner Guth does not strike me as being an intellect of the same caliber as a lot of other top theoretical physicists I observe on the web. (He does seem like a nice guy though). About Linde in this regard I have no idea.

  28. NPR is pushing it every day in every way. And I bet they all have their ears glued to NPR. They figure if it works against south africa, the same tactic will work on this. What a total lack of imagination.

  29. if Harvard wants to waste their endowment money playing politics, fine by me. Just as long as all the books in the library get digitized before they get sold off to pay for heating oil. Or whatever they would rather use.

  30. Dear Sage, elimination of a stock by a stockholder who isn't a big one for the stock doesn't imply any visible losses. It's a neutral game.

  31. I totally agree with you on this Mozilla boss getting fired. I too was shocked to hear nothing to stand up for him. People are scared.