Thursday, October 15, 2015

Science and the Big Bang Theory: Richard Feynman's van

The Feynman family with the family van.
From its first joke, CBS' The Big Bang Theory has proven adept at mixing humor and science. Many of the science jokes hinge on comprehending the subtleties of quantum physics in the Shrodinger's cat thought experiment (or making a self-aware lack of comprehension), but some are not about scientific concepts themselves, but jokes that focus on the culture of science.

For example, in a previous episode, Sheldon took Amy to a book signing by noted theoretical physicist and author Brian Greene, specifically so that he could heckle Greene for attempting to demystify string theory in a language accessible to the common, non-scientist reader. Science communicators and scientists ranging from Nobel Laureate George Smoot to Bill Nye to Stephen Hawking have made cameo appearances on the show.

In the handful of episodes this season, the direct scientific references have been slim, but there's been one notable scientific cameo. Not by a scientist, though, but by his family van.

Since Leonard and Penny eloped in the last season finale/premiere, the guys hadn't gotten a chance to throw Leonard a bachelor party. To make up for it, they decide to drive down to Mexico (abducting Sheldon to bring him along, although one has to wonder why they would ruin their weekend in this fashion and not just leave him behind). And the vehicle they use for their bachelor party road trip was a van that had belonged to Richard Feynman.

Richard Feynman was the famed CalTech physicist, filling the gap of popular face of physics between the eras of Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. He worked on the Manhattan Project, was one of the key figures in developing quantum electrodynamics (for which he received the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics), inspired the fields of nanotechnology and quantum computing, and famously demonstrated the likely reason for the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster with a glass of ice water. Feynman had a big personality, as well, and is as well known for the strange stories about him as for his physics. He became known as a safe cracker at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project and played bongo drums at strip clubs, to name just a couple of his unusual hobbies.

And his van is, to my knowledge, the only real vehicle that has been repeatedly mentioned in physics books. (The Enterprise and the Batmobile probably have been referenced.)

Though not explained in the episode, Feynman's van is famous in physics circles because of the curious squiggly markings on the outside of the vehicle. These look random, but they're actually diagrams used in physics to describe the quantum interactions of particles. They are, to the physics community at large, called "Feynman diagrams." Though he displayed uncharacteristic humility in avoiding calling them by this name, he was very proud of their creation, as they were a key tool in comprehending the quantum electrodynamics interactions that he had defined mathematically. He was so proud, in fact, that he detailed his van with these Feynman diagrams.

The van was restored recently, and the show note at the end of the episode does indicate that it was actually Feynman's van that was used in the episode, not a replica ... a scientific cultural icon that became part of a popular culture icon. (Despite the events of the episode, we are assured that the real van survives intact.)

Episode 9.3: The Bachelor Party Corrosion
Air date: October 5, 2015
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