Saturday, January 05, 2019

Is Sheldon's and Amy's paper an extension of Polchinski's work?

TV viewers are watching the last, twelfth season of The Big Bang Theory on CBS. We saw the first episodes of TBBT and Young Sheldon (2nd season) after the Christmas break (the 11th episodes).

Young Sheldon has employed some Socratic and social scientific strategies to teach mathematics to his sister Missy. He had some successes but when he has used the punishment of Missy's doll as an incentive, it backfired and she slapped him in his face. The same thing happened to his older brother George who had a crush on a girl and pretended to be a Christian – this also reminds me of something LOL. She smashed him in his face after he kissed her in the church.

In TBBT, most of the couples saw some tension while playing paintball – that's why the episode was called The Paintball Scattering. But physicists must have noticed some references to other physicists.

In that episode, Sheldon and Amy became sort of famous with the science media because of their paper on antisupersymmetry that got revived in a previous episode. They received some feedback from the folks through the Internet. One of them was Dr David Saltzberg of UCLA at 1:30 – the show's science adviser has cleverly promoted his name through Amy's mouth. It was a well-deserved self-advertisement.

At 5:00 and 18:20, we could hear the name of Joe Polchinski, the top string theorist who prematurely died in February 2018. First, the university president wanted to demonstrate to Sheldon that Sheldon was incapable of dealing with the morons in the science media. As an example, the president asked Sheldon what Sheldon would answer is a science journalist asked whether Amy's and Sheldon's paper was just a derivative work building on a paper by Polchinski. Sheldon's facial muscles started to misbehave and he couldn't answer.

In order to lick the rectums of the science journalists, the president wanted to sideline Sheldon and made sure that only Amy was interviewed (while both were invited to the presidential dining hall for the better people, something like the Faculty Club at Harvard). That's why the science press was full of headlines such as "A Neuroscientist Revolutionizes Physics" – titles that rightfully angered Sheldon, a mastermind behind the paper. At the end, Sheldon won a battle and was allowed to participate at an interview. He was asked the question by a female journalist whether the work was just an extension of Polchinski's findings. The muscles collapsed in a similar way and Sheldon had to leave the interview scene prematurely.

You know, the sitcom is watched by some 15 million Americans and it's obvious that such a large number of viewers – whose distribution cannot be too different from the distribution in the general population (OK, in plain English: who must be rather representative of the American society) – couldn't really understand truly technical discussions about some physics issues. In this sense, I understand that it makes sense that the show doesn't try to be too difficult and when some science appears, it is being fully assumed that all the technical content is going to be completely ignored by the viewers.

On the other hand, the show has always presented lots of the social stuff surrounding physics and physicists and it has done so in an extremely realistic yet entertaining way. Even the reference to Joe Polchinski immediately unmasks that the show has a physics insider as an adviser. You know, while Polchinski has been a hero for theoretical physicists, people who aren't familiar with the environment of top theoretical physicists usually don't know Polchinski's name at all. If there were a paper about antisupersymmetry, which could hypothetically be a good name for some insights that I can't clarify right now, it would be rather likely that it would be a marginal extension of some Polchinski's paper. The overall theme simply makes some sense, including the names.

Despite its being an entertainment vehicle, TBBT is much more oriented towards the real scientific research and researchers than the "scientific media" that claim to be rather technical. Instead of Polchinski, most of those would be much more likely to impress their readers with the pop science crooks and cranks such as Smolin, Rovelli, or Hossenfelder instead of the likes of Polchinski.

The show also asks important moral questions. How should one feel when the press incorrect assigns credit for a paper? Should the scientist be upset? Nervous? Does it matter when the title is totally misleading but the bulk of the popular article mostly fixes these heavy inaccuracies? Sheldon obviously thinks that wrong and misleading pop science articles are a problem – and even misleading clickbait headlines are a problem. And he's not afraid of making his dissatisfaction visible, even when he is the man who is damaged by the inaccuracies. Well, I am mostly on Sheldon's side, of course.

However, I am afraid that most viewers of TBBT are not. At least, it's nice to be able to keep the faith that the creators of the show are at least agnostic about the questions.

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