Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Big Bang Theory and The Doppler Effect

I like to include video clips in my lessons where appropriate. They add nicely to a well-balanced (and well-mixed) lesson.

Examples of scientific principles used in popular culture are always nice for critiquing. You show Roadrunner clips so students can reflect on where the physics is good, where it is bad, and "what should have happened?"

At some point, students might get jaded and assume every pop-culture clip you show will contain some misrepresentation of physics.

Then you show them this gem from The Big Bang Theory:

Sheldon's Doppler Effect Halloween Costume (I would have embedded, but embedding was disabled.)

The Big Bang Theory actually vets its scripts with a UC physicist. A physics-content misstep on TBBT is a rare event. And they drop in physics references like most sitcoms drop in toilet-humor references.

While discussing the Doppler Effect in class, I show the clip and ask students if Sheldon gives a correct definition. Some will knee-jerk a swift "no!" Wait time is important here. Others will eventually chime in with a "yes." I repeat the definition portion of the segment a few times without adding prejudice one way or the other. The tide sweeps through the room, and the "yeas" outweigh the "nays" soon enough.

I then assure them that they can watch TBBT with confidence that the physics will be correctly represented. Unfortunately this may simply ensure that TBBT will never be seen by any of my students. Sigh.

UPDATE: Did I mention I have a birthday coming up? I'm partial to 2XL.


Ad said...

Awesome! I found this post when i searched for "doppler effect" lessons. Love the show, and I am totally bringing up Sheldon's Halloween costume when we study this next week. I'm not sure if I will show the whole clip or not in class as its kind of snarky. But at least I can show his response. Thanks for blogging!

markowitz1959 said...

Hi, your blog is the only place I thought I might get an answer to my possibly naive question. I apologize in advance---I am a math grad student…

I just don't understand why Sheldon's costume represents the Doppler effect because it is symmetrical, and my understanding is that the frequency changes monotonically. Could you please post what I am missing?


Anonymous said...

because the widths of the white lines are getting shorter as they approach the "observer" and growing wider as leaving it.

Unknown said...

I like this show. I am a huge fan of this show. Its my favorite sitcom. If you also want to enjoy this entertaining series just click on this link and Watch Big Bang Theory TV Show online.

Anonymous said...

The cooler effect is non-uniform. Sheldon's costume is incorrect.

Ryan said...

Markowitz, I agree that his costume looks inaccurate... If you look at Sheldon only from the front, it is wrong, but if you think of Sheldon as a cylinder, it kind of makes more sense... the dot (meaning the source of the sound) is in the front, and the waves get longer as they move around towards his back. Although I haven't seen the back of his costume, so hopefully that's how they made it.