OK. Obviously, I am not the fictional character Sheldon from the TV show The Big Bang Theory. Nor am I claiming to be one of the writers for the show. That said, I started watching the show because a coworker repeatedly called me Sheldon. After watching the show a number of times, I can only say that I take it as a huge compliment to be considered similar to Sheldon. Personally, I do not claim to be as smart as the Sheldon character is portrayed, nor do I think my social skills are quite that bad.
Please note before going on with this post that I do like the show, the song, and the lyrics. This post will really be about picking a few choice nits and giving credit where the lyrics are correct. So, why bother?
On this type of show, even as a comedy, I think they should avoid making scientific errors to the best of their ability; I am the type of asshole to point them out. Also, there are a few scientific errors in the song that are worth highlighting and may be more than mere nits, especially if you listen to the entire song beyond just the first stanza played in the opening credits. I will not post the actual lyrics here due to the risk of copyright violation. Instead, you may wish to open this link in another tab or window to follow the lyrics along with this post.
Certainly, at the singularity before the big bang, hot and dense does indeed describe the state of the universe, so we’re off to a good start on the song. Nearly fourteen billion years probably is close enough, especially considering that 13.73 billion years plus or minus 120 million years would be extremely difficult to fit into song lyrics. So, even Sheldon will have to call this line a good one.
That said, I have to add, isn’t it totally freakin’ awesome that we now know the age of the universe to within less than 1 percent? Thanks WMAP!!
Skipping ahead a bit over 9 billion years to the formation of the earth is a bit of a leap, though not technically wrong. However, it’s a very human and earth centric thing to do and should be noted as such, especially since more human and earth centric viewpoints are yet to come.
Autotrophs are a really nice addition to the song. Most people have not heard the term before. I had to look it up for an accurate definition. However, the idea that they drool is a bit odd. I’ve personally never been aware of any plant or algae species that actually drools. With so many such species, perhaps there are some that do. Or, perhaps some of the extremophiles at volcanic vents on the ocean floor drool. I wouldn’t bet on it though. More likely the lyricist simply needed something to rhyme with cool. I’m not sure I could do better. Still though, drooling plants? I think not.
On to neanderthals, certainly they had tools. This line is a bit strange though since many other hominids had tools before neanderthals and other great apes also have tools. In fact, chimps were recently observed hunting with spears. Damn! Spear-wielding chimps. Who expected that one? Even crows make tools in the wild and cache particularly good ones for later reuse. Crows are particularly smart birds, of course. However, these facts make one wonder why the choice of neanderthals over homo habilis, erectus, and ergaster, all of whom came earlier and had stone tools that lasted long enough to later be found by us. Poetic license again? Perhaps. Neanderthals was probably just the right number of syllables.
All of that said, skipping ahead over 3 billion years to get to a hominid is another fairly human-centric way to view the world. Why is that hominid worthy of mention when species that have survived for several hundred million years (versus our mere 200,000 years) were not worth mentioning.
Pyramids and walls. Presumably, the song refers to the Great Wall of China and the Egyptian Pyramids, being the most famous wall and pyramids. If so, these are out of order in the song with the wall beginning around 500 BCE and the pyramids dating to about 2600 BCE.
Regarding the amount of time required for the formation of elements and galaxies, here’s a serious timeline of the universe for reference. Pick your preferred resolution for viewing it.
Given that stars first began to form 400 million years after the bang, I’m having a really hard time imagining someone taking so long to sing this song that not only the stars could form, but galaxies could as well. Sorry Barenaked Ladies. You’re way off on this one.
Regarding the formation of atoms, this PDF file from NASA states:
Eventually, the universe cooled sufficiently that protons and electrons could combine to form neutral hydrogen. This was thought to occur roughly 400,000 years after the Big Bang when the universe was about one eleven hundredth its present size. Cosmic microwave background photons interact very weakly with neutral hydrogen.
So, I’m going to have to say that a fraction of a second to make the elements is way off. Further, the only elements created directly from the big bang were hydrogen and helium. So, the bulk of the elements had to wait for the formation of stars that form the heavier elements inside them by nuclear fusion. That our planet is littered with such elements is evidence that our planet was formed out of the remnants of a supernova that released the elements from the star in which they formed. Given that heavier elements are required to make human beings, and indeed all life with which we are familiar, we can honestly say, “we are star barf.” Though, the point here is really that the elements and stars took much longer to form than the song states.
Dinosaurs. This is a huge point that is just glaringly wrong in the song.
Extant (living) dinosaur species still outnumber extant mammal species by a factor of around 2 to 1. There are over 10,000 living dinosaur species in the world, according to my Birds of the World checklist and only about 5,000 living mammal species. Since birds are dinosaurs through direct descent and for the same reason that humans are mammals, the dinosaurs most certainly were not late for their leap. Nor did they freeze their asses off. Even if one is discussing the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs, the cause is actually still a heated topic for debate. The comet that caused the Chixulub crater is probably still the dominant theory. Though there is strong evidence that numbers were declining prior to that. Either way, the likelihood of animals with such impressive gigantothermy and possibly warm-blooded enormous animals at that, freezing their asses off when chickadees do just fine through a cold winter seems quite unlikely.
Further, ignoring the existing dinosaurs and making it sound as if the extinct dinosaurs were somehow inferior is another example of a human-centric world view. We would be doing amazingly well if we could survive for a couple of hundred million years. The way things look today, we may not make it for another couple of hundred years.
By far, the biggest factual error in the song is the statement that the universe will at some time in the future contract back to a singularity in what is often termed a big crunch or, as Douglas Adams called it in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a gnab gib. It has been known for more than a decade that not only will this not happen in our particular universe but that the accelerated expansion of the universe guarantees that our universe will end with a cold entropy death or, as suggested by dark energy, a big rip. Regardless of whether our universe undergoes heat death or a big rip, it has been known to be an open universe for quite some time. The song, written in 2007, posits a closed universe, which is by far not the dominant theory today, nor was it at the time the song was written.
As a final point, mythology and astrology are only products of the big bang to the extent that our imagination is. Certainly, there is nothing in physical observations to confirm either one. So, to put these in the list is to imply that the tooth fairy is equally a product of the big bang. It’s not wholly false, but really shouldn’t be included in a list of things created by the big bang, but rather that they are created by our own delusional minds, which, yes, are a creation of the big bang. So, a more accurate statement would be that our imagination is the result of the big bang. The delusions we dream up are still just that, delusions.
I’m sure the rest of the debate, if one occurs, will center on my prior paragraph. If so, this will be unfortunate as I already acknowledged that our imagination is the result of the big bang. So, if you choose to interpret all of our imaginary creations as creations of the big bang, fine. I understand and respect that opinion, though I somewhat disagree with it in the sense that it makes our imagination’s creations far more real than they actually are.
Just as a parting note, I am forwarding this to a PhD String Theorist I know for verification. I may make changes as a result. [editor's note 2/22/2010: I just received confirmation of the physics portions of this from said string theorist, though he declined to confirm or deny anything outside of physics, such as evolutionary biology.]
For any readers who can actually tell the difference between science and nonscience (nonsense?), please also feel free to correct me. I realize I am far from infallible. To any fundamentalist readers in the crowd who cannot distinguish science from nonsense, please consider posting on one of my many anti-religion threads rather than this one. Not that I mind the debate, just that it is seriously off-topic here.
Here’s a YouTube video of the song in its entirety with lyrics.