'The Big Bang' or Bust

Author(s): Tim Brouk
Photographs by: Tim Brouk and provided

Physics students say TV hit tells the truth

For four physics graduate students, television’s hit sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” about brilliant but socially awkward scientists is factual, fabulously entertaining, and, most importantly, has helped physics go mainstream.

“You can tell someone that you study physics now and they’re not, ‘What the heck?’” says Robert Niffenegger, a graduate student from Wisconsin. “Now they’re like, ‘Oh, like ‘Big Bang Theory’?”

Like the show’s main characters who conduct research in “Big Bang Theory” at the California Institute of Technology, the Purdue physics students work — and sometimes speak — in a technically complex world.

The sitcom script has the eccentric Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) waxing poetic about Schroedinger’s Cat or other scientific obscurity. Purdue has Niffenegger, Yunlong Zi, John Watson and Nodar Samkharadze.

Samikhardze works in Professor Gabor Csathy’s lab, taking epitaxially grown gallium arsenide quantum well samples and measuring their resistance in large magnetic fields and at very low temperatures. Watson works with Professor Michael Manfra growing the gallium arsenide samples that Samkharadze measures. Niffenegger works in Professor Yong Chen’s Quantum Matter and Devices Lab studying Spin Orbit Coupled Bose Einstein Condensates. And Zi, a native of Huoqiu, China, focuses on nanoelectronics and watches “Big Bang Theory” reruns while eating lunch.

Gathered recently to discuss the TV show, the Purdue students enthusiastically debated who is more like “The Big Bang Theory” characters Leonard Hofstadter (played by
Johnny Galecki), the quiet Raj Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar) and the quirky Cooper.

“The Big Bang Theory” writers do a commendable job of representing their field without alienating those who don’t know the difference between Newton’s laws of motion and a Fig Newton, Samkharadze says.

Much of the action takes place in the apartment of physicists Leonard and Sheldon. Throw in Penny (Kaley Cuoco), the comely and distinctly nonscientific blonde neighbor who works at The Cheesecake Factory, and you have classic comedy antics. As in most hit shows, it’s the characters that are the driving force. The science is just icing on the cake for Samkharadze.

“Obviously, all of those characters are exaggerated. They have to be, right? It’s a TV show,” says Samkharadze, who received his undergraduate degree at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. “In fact, the only regular person is Leonard and he’s boring. And that’s how physicists usually are — trying to interact with the outside world and sometimes failing.”

Like Leonard and Sheldon on the show, Boilermakers Samkharadze and Niffenegger are roommates. Samkharadze says he is like Sheldon — bossy, quirky, serious.
Niffenegger is more reserved than the tall, talkative Georgian (the country near Russia). In the laboratory, both are more like Leonard, who is an experimentalist, versus Sheldon’s theorist.

In another life-imitating-art coincidence, Niffenegger is dating their neighbor, just as Leonard has dated Penny in the series. Niffenegger is quick to say, though, that his date is much smarter than the TV blonde.

Watson says he can’t think of another television show that better exemplifies his field of science. He mentions dramatic films like “A Beautiful Mind” and “Good Will Hunting” as more serious works but says he never imagined a successful comedy about physicists.

“Physics, generally, is not funny,” Watson says. “Our lives aren’t comedy.”

Even so, a Purdue lab that features an extremely cold dilution refrigerator and four physicists ribbing each other does generate a lot of laughter. Jokes about who is smarter than who could be used as dialogue in the hit CBS show.

“People do say I sound like Sheldon sometimes,” Samkharadze laughs. “At least there is this idea of the fun physicist, not a very cool one though.”

Physics guys

From left: John Watson, Yunlong Zi, Robert Niffenegger and Nodar Samharadze.