November 10, 2011
Do You Know What’s Interesting About Caves, Sheldon? Everything.
Posted by Evelyn Mervine
Dear Dr. Sheldon Cooper,
Let me first say that I greatly admire the documentary “The Big Bang Theory” that follows the daily lives of you and some of your scientific colleagues* at Caltech. “The Big Bang Theory” provides refreshing, mentally stimulating programming in a time when television is, sadly, dominated by fluffy reality TV shows about weddings, cakes, and orange-colored inhabitants of the Jersey Shore who will probably develop melanoma in their early 30s. With rare exceptions, TV has really gone downhill ever since “Firefly” was canceled. Your delightful documentary and “Game of Thrones” are the only shows I regularly watch on television these days. I recently tried adding the promising-sounding “Terra Nova” to my TV-watching schedule, but unfortunately the painfully cliché dialogue and pervasive scientific inaccuracies can only be moderately compensated for by CGI dinosaurs. I’m afraid I may have to abandon my attempts to follow “Terra Nova”, which makes me all the more grateful that I can watch your documentary. Furthermore, I imagine that footage from “The Big Bang Theory” will provide valuable information for the historians who will write your biographies after you win the Nobel Prize in Physics for your innovative and brilliant work in String Theory. I actually wish you would go into more detail about your work in theoretical physics, which sounds fascinating. Much as I enjoy watching you and your friends play games such Klingon boggle, Wii Bowling, and Dungeons & Dragons– past times that I also find entertaining– and watching your amusing interactions with your neighbor Penny and various friends and family members, I do wish that more of your documentary would focus on your scientific achievements.
However, the actual purpose of this letter is not simply to praise your documentary and your work as a scientist. As I’m sure you understand, unfortunately it is sometimes necessary to follow non-optional social conventions. In this case, I am following the social convention of providing compliments prior to providing criticisms. Now that I’ve provided an entire complimentary paragraph, let me move on to my criticism. Actually, I have more of a demand than a criticism. To put it simply: Stop saying that geology isn’t a real science.
Perhaps making up 26 dimensions in order to make your mathematics work out isn’t real science. Ever thought about that, Sheldon? I am a geologist, and I take offense that you consider me a “dirt person” and “not a real scientist.” Firstly, the term is “soil scientist” not “dirt person.” Secondly, geology is a perfectly legitimate, interdisciplinary science that requires advanced knowledge and synthesis of the fields of biology, chemistry, mathematics, and– yes– even physics. Geologists must be polymaths, which makes geologists elite scientists in my completely unbiased opinion. For hundreds of years, geologists have made concrete and important contributions to science. Let me list just a few of these contributions below:
The Age of the Earth:
Without the science of geology, people might still believe that the Earth has a Biblical age of only a few thousand years**. In the 1600s and 1700s geologists such as Nicolas Steno and James Hutton helped scientists understand that Earth must be millions of years old if the weathering and sedimentation processes operating in the Quarternary were responsible for forming the Earth’s landscape. “The Present is the Key to the Past” is a simple but extremely useful concept that was introduced by these early geologists. Admittedly, one of the first scientists to try to calculate (inaccurately, I might mention) the age of the Earth was physicist Lord Kelvin, who came up with an age of 100 million years based on cooling properties. However, Lord Kelvin overlooked radioactive heating***, so his calculated age was far too young. Fortunately, geochemists eventually determined that the Earth has an age of 4.54 billion years based on radiometric dating of chondrite meteorites and also Pb-Pb isotope systematics.
The theory of plate tectonics was developed by geologists in the 1950s and 1960s. Since you live in southern California dangerously close to the San Andreas fault, perhaps you are not fully familiar with the importance of this theory. After brushing up on the theory, perhaps you will want to consider moving to a more tectonically-stable region of the planet. Personally, I recommend southern Africa.
Science on the Moon:
The only scientist ever to travel to the Moon is geologist Harrison Schmitt, a Caltech alumnus. Clearly, NASA has great respect for the science of geology. Don’t you think that NASA would have sent a physicist to the moon if they considered physics more important?
I could go on, but I think you understand my point. Let me conclude my letter by stating that I think your disrespect for the fine science of geology limits your own scientific endeavors. For example, in one of the early episodes of your documentary you completely overlook the potential for scientific research in caves. As you and your friend Leonard are walking down the stairs to attend a department party, you complain about how at the last department party you were forced to listen to a professor talk about spelunking for 45 minutes. You then rhetorically ask, “Do you know what’s interesting about caves, Leonard?” and then answer your own question with the simple reply, “Nothing.”
Really, I’m shocked at your lack of knowledge regarding caves. A simple Wikipedia search would inform you that there are dozens of reasons why caves are both interesting and scientifically important. To assist you in filling this gaping hole in your scientific knowledge, I’ve listed a few examples below.
A Few Reasons Why Caves are Interesting:
-Many important archaeological artifacts and fossils have been discovered in caves, which tend to preserve items by protecting them from the environment. As an example, important Austrolopithecus africanus fossils have been uncovered in the Sterkfontein Caves in South Africa.
-Study of speleothems (chemical precipitates which form in caves), which form slowly over thousands of years, provides important information about Earth’s paleoclimate, a topic which is very important to understand in light of the rapid anthropogenic climate change which has been occurring since the Industrial Revolution.
-Study of troglobites (cave-dwelling animals) is a rich and very important field of biology that can provide insights into evolutionary adaptation such as the enhancement of non-vision senses such as hearing, taste, and touch.
-Deep, well-shielded caves provide excellent environments in which to observe neutrinos. If I were a physicist, I would want a cave lair where I could set-up and monitor my neutrino experiments.
-Caves contain bats, which are one of nature’s most elegant and interesting creatures. Personally, I find bats’ use of echolocation particularly fascinating. Based on your strong interest in Batman, I imagine you must also find bats very interesting.
Those are just a few of the many, many reasons why caves are interesting.
Now that I have explained why geology is an important and very legitimate science and why caves are fascinating and important scientific research environments, I hope you will reconsider your rash disregard for geology and geologists. Perhaps you will even consider collaborating on some scientific projects with geologists. Caltech has one of the world’s best geology departments, and I would be very interested to see your brilliant mind turned to some of the important outstanding questions in geology. For example, geophysicists do not understand Earth’s magnetic field reversals very well. I imagine that your expertise in theoretical physics could be very useful for providing insight into why and when Earth’s magnetic field reverses. You may wish to pursue this topic for personal reasons since an unexpected geomagnetic field reversal could prove very detrimental to your standard of living.
I look forward to receiving your reply to this letter.
PhD Candidate in Marine Geology & Geophysics
MIT / Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program
*I realize that you may view “scientific colleagues” as somewhat strong wording. After all, Howard is just an engineer.
**I think that some of your relatives in Texas still believe this. Can you please try to educate them on this matter?
***Probably because radioactivity hadn’t been discovered yet, but surely a smart physicist should have discovered radioactive heat prior to endeavoring to calculate Earth’s age from cooling models.
Hilarious – and well done you – taking that boy to SCHOOL!!!
I heard from so many geo-scientists how offended they were by the repeated down-talking of geo-science in the otherwise good show. Good for you for finally speaking up for all of us!
I LOVE SHELDON COOPER!!! 🙂 🙂 xxx <3 WOOOO!!!!
Thank you – that was possibly your best post to date, and a fine reward for us after after enduring all that tedious moving and marrying hiatus :-).
Excellent post! The first time Sheldon dissed geologists it was mildly amusing, but it’s definitely getting old!
Do you know how many theoretical physicists it takes to change a light bulb? Three… One to hold the bulb and two to rotate the universe
I feel like maybe I can comment here, since I am a CalTech alum from the Geo Division. It is bitterness: the physicists were always resentful because the geologists had better parties, better-looking girlfriends, and better hygiene.
Greetings and Salutations!
Great rant there and some very good points about tribalism in the scientific community.
@CherryBombSim – Kind of by definition, geologists have to get out of their parent’s basement at SOME point. This is not the case with physicists. Actually, this may explain all three of the points where geologists best physicists listed in your post.
While I am not defending the theoretical community, from my interactions with a number of geologists and physicists over the years, I rather suspect that the percentage of physicists on the autism spectrum (specifically Asperger’s Syndrome) is a lot higher than one finds in the geological community.
Is there a problem with having Asperger’s?
[…] haven’t yet received a reply to my letter to Dr. Sheldon Cooper about why geology is a real and valuable science and why caves are interesting, but that’s […]
Well apparently Jim Parson’s character isn’t fascinated by caves. Sheldon also isn’t fascinated by a lot of great things such as women, social activity and sports. They are just dissing geo because they needed something to diss. “Howard is just an engineer.” Without engineers you would have to do calculations of data without a computer or walk everywhere because lack cars and transit. Yeah BBT is just a show. It’s based on the life of scientists and has several factual errors. Let’s not hate on other sciences and continually diss liberal arts.
Really, you get really offended by a FAKE tv show…..
get over yourself
Oh…………and I’m a geologist too 🙂
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They only sent a geologist to the moon because they had already sent a chimp to space and they were moving up the evolutionary scale.
[…] bien, vía AGU descubro un blog que ha recogido el guante con una interesante y amena réplica, muy del estilo de la página (está en inglés, of course, […]
I loved this! Thank you so much! I just graduated with a BS in Geology, and I’m currently looking into pursuing a PhD. As much a I love the show, I’ve found myself musing over why a physicist (even a very strange fictional one) would want to put geologists down, especially since geology is such an interdisciplinary field that uses physics (and chemistry, etc) and, as you pointed out, contributes to these fields. I’d love to see how Sheldon would handle Mineralogy! I think the answer must simply be that stereotypical geologists aren’t like other stereotypical scientists. We go outside, and we LOVE it. Field work is awesome, and can be kind of a party. Many of us pursue outdoor recreational activities that have inspired our love of geology. How could you not go rock climbing or backpacking and NOT wonder why what we see is there? With all of this outdoor activity, most geologists are pretty darn sexy and fun-loving. Wouldn’t most socially-awkward, stereotypical scientists resent geologists because of that? Sheldon might not, but I can see how it might influence his opinion of geologist. If only Big Bang Theory would introduce a stereotypical geologist (outdoorsy, attractive, and smart, though perhaps a bit reckless) as even a minor character to explain Sheldon’s attitude. It’d be entertaining anyhow.
So glad you like the post! 🙂
Why sheldon probably thinks it’s not a real science:
Geology only gets snapshots of observations since you can’t observe thing like mountains growing
This makes it difficult to do experiments and therefore prove hypothesis
Even if some experiments are possible, there aren’t control variables since there is only one earth
Did you see last night’s episode? He say that geology is to science what Kim Kardashian is to Hollywood. Then he held a geology book as if it was some kind of skanky hooker. I think they need to get a geologist on the show to get in his face. Maybe a geophysicist…
Interestingly enough, Geology is the only science major that does not qualify one to become a Patent Attorney.
[…] this smug, self-important drivel emit from the mouths of proudly lab-bound neontologists, making Sheldon Cooper look downright open-minded by comparison.) I was also at a university that had jettisoned its […]
Calm down, it’s just a satire. They take swipes at a lot of subjects, heck the even take jabs at Steven Hawking, and he is probably their biggest Fan.
I’m studying physics with geology as a second major and I must admit geology is nothing like the other science. The highly speculative and uncertain nature of the subject is what makes it…un-science like. I love geology and everything about it, because it’s a great balance to the more certain physics discipline. Geology uses concepts from physics, chemistry, and biology to make sense of the Earth, but it is hard to prove them as it is currently not possible to produce repeatable experiments to prove how that syncline or transform fault formed. Maybe with play-doh in a laboratory setting, yes, but it is not the real thing. Neither can we ask that gastropod or those other fossils (i don’t get carbonates) how it came to be that way. We can only HOPE we are right and if it sounds reasonable enough, amen to that.
Geology is scientific enough when it comes to mining for natural resources, but when it comes to solving deep time problems, unless you have lived through the 2Ga it roughly takes for new continental crust to form, every theory is as good as a guess. It is not my intention to offend any geologist, but it is what it is.
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