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Don’t Sheldon Me Bro!

January 2, 2011

"Hey it's those guys who you're exactly like!"

“Sheldoned” is a word I’ve invented to describe the very common line of conversation that goes like this:

“Yeah, I just finished my PhD”
“In what?”
“Particle physics with a bit of astrophysics”
“Oh, like Sheldon!”

I guess it’s to be expected that the most famous physicist in the world is a fictional character, but according to this piece things are even worse. Only a small fraction of Americans can name a living scientist in any field. So what are my chances of becoming more famous than Sheldon?

Governments love to talk about the importance of science, but there are already too many PhDs to fill existing academic job positions. “Big issues” like climate change, pollution, water management, third-world disease treatments, and renewable energy tend to become political rather than scientific issues. Industrial and commercial research is visible to the general public as cool new products rather than interesting new facts about nature. So while scientists are necessary for iPhones to exist, they tend to be hidden in the background and there’s no opportunity for some guy who invented a new energy efficient cellphone screen to enter fame-land.

Stephen Hawking can just ring up NASA anytime and go to space, because he is famous.

The nature of academic science doesn’t lend itself to a celebrity culture. Nowadays most important research is done by collaborations rather than the solo Einstein type. People can be recognized (especially within their fields) for having lots of good ideas or doing great experiments, but a far less famous researcher can still just come along and prove them wrong. Knowing the reputation of the authors of a paper (ie. fame) can only make one’s judgement of the research less impartial.

If you haven't been on the cover of Time, Sheldon is still beating you. Furthermore, Sagan is "the real Reagan"

However, people are still fascinated and interested in science. Things like the recent lunar eclipse, extra-solar planets, pictures from the Mars rovers, or weird sea creatures will always draw people’s attention away from the monotony of human problems, politics, the economy, and crime. The natural world can still inspire wonder in people. So I think my best bet at out Sheldoning Sheldon is to become the next Carl Sagan or David Attenborough. The only other option in today’s world appears to be picking a fight with religion, which is just boring compared to outer space. Seems better to be actually searching for teapots floating in space than just arguing about them.

What the hell is this crazy thing in outer space? If only we had a famous scientist to explain it to us...

(image source)

7 Comments leave one →
  1. McFly permalink
    January 2, 2011 4:08 am

    Thanks for writing this only after I got my PhD in physics.

  2. January 2, 2011 12:06 pm

    We’re both overqualified for Maccas now. Also you can’t spell ‘career’ so you already failed the interview 😦

  3. Evelyn permalink
    January 2, 2011 2:58 pm

    Is fame why people do physics? And to be fair, whilst it seems that there are less famous physicists the general scientific knowledge of people and associated lay science books does seem to be increasing… Must there be some head person stealing the limelight from the research group?

    • January 2, 2011 11:04 pm

      Nah I think that’s the problem, nobody gets into science for fame, but then the popular face of science is Sheldon. It just feels wrong that the public picture of what a scientist is should be decided by the writers of a sitcom.

  4. McFly permalink
    January 2, 2011 11:57 pm

    Just start introducing yourself as Sheldon. Or say your research was on something cool. Like mammoths.

  5. purplerulz permalink
    February 27, 2011 11:21 pm

    So is every human endeavour only to be measured in it’s success by how Famous we are? Nothing is good, worthy, admirable or for the betterment of man/person kind unless we get on Oprah or talk to David Letterman about it?
    Surley this just adds to the seemingly unstoppable quest for the two most important things these days – fame and wealth – these are two things we must be to make our lives worthwhile!

  6. purplerulz permalink
    February 27, 2011 11:26 pm

    PS, I actually admit to liking Big Bang Theory… not for the science, not for it’s stereotypes of scientists, but just because it’s funny and the characters are more complex than your average sit com – but then this comes from a librarian… and man just notice the stereotypes of them in movies/ TV / books!! Buns, little glasses, cardigans, tweed skirts and sensible shoes – Librarians are the most diverse and eccentric bunch I’ve ever met and not a tweed skirt in sight!

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