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In the first season the equations on Sheldon's whiteboard change over time and in each episode there's a different equation; so they put someone in charge to show that there's actually a progress in that board.

But it's a real progress research or those equations reflect something already solid or demonstrated?

Here's a photo with Sheldon, Penny and the whiteboard in the background:enter image description here

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Aside: One of the experimental projects that I work on was featured on the whiteboard. There were some typographic issues that everyone inside the collaboration made fun of, but the board was clearly prepared by someone competent to read our literature (proposal, presentation slide, papers...). –  dmckee Mar 27 '12 at 19:43
    
It's not my area of expertise, so I can't tell if they are valid, but I am able to pick out that they are using Feynman Diagrams. –  IQAndreas Jan 5 at 20:37
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5 Answers

up vote 38 down vote accepted

As a mere viewer of The Big Bang Theory, I can't answer this question with certainty, but as a physicist, I can offer a couple observations:

  • The equations that appear on the whiteboards in TBBT are from widely varied fields of physics and chemistry. They cover a much wider scope than a typical scientist would actually be working on. Of course, Sheldon is not your typical scientist, and I suppose he could be doing some sort of highly cross-disciplinary research incorporating many different subfields of physics, but still, all the various equations don't seem to have much of a logical connection. Anyway, given that Sheldon considers pretty much anything other than string theory to be beneath him, I can't really see him getting involved in that kind of project on a regular basis.
  • Many of the equations I recognize as well-established physics, the kind of thing one learns as a beginning graduate student. This doesn't necessarily mean anything by itself, because all research is based on well-established physics, but if the equations on the boards were meant to reflect actual current research projects, I would expect to be going "huh, what's that?" and looking things up a lot more often than I do. The BBT blog discusses some reasons why it's generally not practical to incorporate actual current research into the show.
  • There's one particular scene that may be relevant to this: Leslie is over at the guys' apartment (sleeping with Leonard I think), and overnight she fixes an error in Sheldon's math on the whiteboard which he had been struggling with for some time. The thing is, the particular calculation Sheldon was doing (deriving the QCD beta function from renormalization of gluon-exchange diagrams, IIRC) is something that was first worked out back in the 1970s and has been standard physics ever since. It should have been utterly trivial for Sheldon, as an accomplished string theorist (and genius) to do this properly, so I just have hard time believing that he'd been struggling with it. Even if he were, it would not have been hard for him to just look up the proper method and locate the error that way (perhaps his pride prevented him from doing that, but then again a big part of becoming a successful physicist is being able to look things up).

So in summary, I'd say almost certainly no, the equations do not in general reflect current progress in research (though the latest couple blog entries on the show's blog suggest that they're trying this). But they are at a much higher level than most other instances of math in movies and TV, and they are actual scientific equations, so you have to give the show credit for that.

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+1 That's the kind of answer I was expecting. –  Advicer Mar 31 '12 at 20:08
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Your third point is most likely meant as an inside joke from the scientist creating the calculations for the plot. So I would not consider it a mistake/plothole. –  Geerten May 14 '12 at 11:40
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The person you write about, the consultant, UCLA Professor David Saltzberg, has a blog that explains the mathematics of the show episodes. Giving a quick glance, it appears there is an entry for each episode that explains the scientific theme(s) brought up during the show. None of the few I read say anything about progression of the math through a series of episodes. They all seem to be standalone; I can't discern a continuity.

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According to executive producer/co-creator Bill Prady, "We're working on giving Sheldon an actual problem that he's going to be working on throughout the [first] season so there's actual progress to the boards ... We worked hard to get all the science right." –  Advicer Mar 23 '12 at 12:38
    
@Advicer Maybe the blog was an afterthought - it picked up at the second season's finale. So if there is supporting theory for season one, it is not reflected there. –  wbogacz Mar 23 '12 at 12:44
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In the bonus material of season 1 or 2, there is this item about the scientist who provides these equations and the material for it. I remember he said that the problems that are written down, are recent problems that are brought up/solved in recent papers in the respective fields of Sheldon/Leonard/Raj.

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Ok, I have no sources right here right now, but I remember that in first season it was some kind of "progression" on his work... or, more than progression a "connection". But don't take this show too serious, specially not after season 2, a lot of things are just a random mix of disconnected thoeries, hypothesis, etc.

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-1 You didn't answered my question, so I have to consider it as not usefull. –  Advicer Apr 3 '12 at 9:49
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Continuity wise I would say it's a fair attempt to find legitimacy among learned viewers but to the majority of the masses who have justified the shows popularity the actual math is irrelevant compared to the continues comic relief the show offers amongst the supposed serious work. If you can, try not to over think the show as for example how Leonard has in his relationship with Penny you may enjoy it more. On a related topic Mayim Bialik who plays Amy Farrah Fowler on the show has earned an undergraduate degree in neuroscience and Hebrew and Jewish studies and has probable moved on to advanced studies. She's also written a book about parenting based on the science of hormones involved in parent-child bonding, to be released by Simon & Schuster. Her Ph.D. research at UCLA focused on obsessive compulsive disorder among people with Prader-Willi syndrome, a rare condition in which the hypothalamus malfunctions. What a gal.

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There's an answer in here somewhere...just buried behind a lot of other irrelevant stuff. –  TylerShads Feb 15 '13 at 19:52
    
Like the question my attempt to explain my perception of the "character's" work has led me to over think it. As Sheldon is only a character on a TV show my answer would have to be a resounding NO because neither the character nor the actor is the author of the said work. –  David Duggan Feb 15 '13 at 20:04
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protected by TylerShads Feb 15 '13 at 19:52

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