Sunday, December 09, 2018

Super Asymmetry on The Big Bang Theory: How Realistic?

The TV show The Big Bang Theory portrays academia so I am naturally curious how realistic it is. I have posted about this before (see here) in the context of whether actual things they say about physics are true. Today I post about a recent arc where Amy and Sheldon are working on Super asymmetry.


1) The name: Super Asymmetry. Its not a field but it could be. I assume its about particle physics but I'm not sure they ever say this. A fine name!

2) Amy is a neurobiologist (this was flagged as not being word, but I think it  is) working with Sheldon on a physical theory that I would assume requires hard math.  Physics is hard! So I wonder how realistic this is. Actually, more important than being hard is that you need a lot of background knowledge. So the questions of interest is: Can an amateur still help in a discovery of a new physical theory? This may depend on the definitions of amateur, discovery, new, and physical.  Alone I would doubt it. But with help from Sheldon, I can believe it. Still, making new discoveries in an old field is hard.

3) Amy and Sheldon first had the idea for super asymmetry on their honeymoon. Most married couples have other things to do on their honeymoon. (I did ask my darling to prove the primes were infinite on our wedding day before I married her. She was nervous so couldn't do it, but normally she could. I know a mathematician who made her spouse memorize the definition of a Banach Space before they got married, and recite it to her on their wedding day before they got married.)

4) After they do most of the work they THEN go track down references. This seems stupid but not unrealistic. You can get excited about a theory and work on it at breakneck speed and not want to slow down to check references. But see next point.

5) Sheldon was counting on this for a Nobel Prize. I would think you would check refs before even thinking in those terms.

6) An article in Russian was found that proved the theory could not work. There are a few things wrong with this:

a) The article used the exact same phrase ``Super Asymmetry'' - that seems unlikely.

b) They seemed to not READ the article, just the first page, and then say. DARN, all that work down the tubes.

c) They seemed to not even try to say `OKAY, they did BLAH, we did BLAH BLAH, how do they compare and contrast' (ADDED LATER- I just saw the episode afterwards. They probably DO have something after all. They should have listened to my advice before going into a funk.)

d) If they did all of that work I am sure SOMETHING can be recovered from it.

7) This is not really a post about The Big Bang Theory. I want to know more about your experiences with research: have you worked on a problem and found out it didn't work or was already done, or something like that. And what happened?


  1. In the early 1990's, we tried to prove that all minimal triangulations of the double torus can be contructed by taking two minimal triangulations of the torus and glueing them together on a face. (A minimal triangulation of a surface is a triangulation where no edge can be contracted without changing the topology of the under laying surface; if the surface is not the sphere, this is equivalent to state that any edge lies on at least 3 3-cycles). We worked on and off on this problem for a year or so, when in a flash of insight, I found a counterexample: a minimal triangulation from the double torus which can not be constructed from minimal triangulations of a torus.

  2. I had an experience related to science/philosophy heated debate. back in age 14, my interest was mainly on philosophy whereas I had a naive viewpoint that I will resolve and end-up philosophers; argumentation by clear-cut evidences. Aged 18, I started to sense philosophy's undecidablity, and all the arguments I thought are rigorously established suddenly seemed to be undermined. I realized what modern-scientists meant by "philosophy is dead". Moreover, I failed in some IQ which precluded me from enrolling in the university I dreamed of and realized that I am inferior to average science-students. I once regretted my whole philosophy's investigations and wished if I focused in science on my youth, currently, I am agnostic whether such experience is more valuable.

  3. In high school I wrote a series of chat bot programs. In my initial version(s) I limited it to three-word sentences, expecting it to be used to mix 'n match Subject - Verb - Object (SVO) sentences. To my surprise, some of my beta testers (fellow classmates) hit upon the idea of connecting-phrases-using-dashes to trick my simple parser and escape the three-word limit. I said, hmmm that's interesting I wonder if I can create an abstraction around this observed practice. The dashes are some sort of link between adjacent words that keeps related word-phrases together. The breaks on space characters between each of the three fixed columns are decision points where you can "switch tracks" and mix in a different sentence. But how could I avoid the dependence on a fixed number (such as three) of word/phrases? I know, I'll make it link-centric and make the links simultaneously do both jobs. But, the programming environment (QBASIC) I was using was also memory constrained - so I abstracted away "words" as being the only kind of symbol, and just gave every symbol a number and links between numbers. Now the program could "learn" sentences (real sentences, not-dashed-together-sentences) of any length. I could also swap out what "symbol" meant and use words, individual letters (so that it would remix new words) or even two-words chunks (for better lucidity of the resulting sentences).

    By the seventh version of the program, I had also hit upon the idea of including, in the learned database, a count of the number of times each link between words (symbols) had been encountered, so that when generating sentences it could use a weighted average to give a reasonable probability. I could have also used the same model to recognize the probability of a sequence of symbols, but I was less interested in that.

    A couple years later, much like the Big Bang Theory story you reference, I finally did a "literature search" after spending a lot of time on it without looking at sources. But in my defense, this was approximately 1998, I was a student in high school not a research institution, and the Internet came late to my house due to living in a semi-rural and low income household. I was alternately elated, shocked, and dismayed to find a research paper (about a chat bot called megaHAL) which casually included almost all of the ideas I had come to only by months of deep thought. Moreover this source attributed the core idea to something called "Markov models" which I was bemused to find out had been worked out by a Russian mathematician (Markov) in the 1950s! What I had invented was essentially Simple Markov Models, except Markov came to it from the opposite end (statistics and probability) whereas I started with output generation and worked it backwards until I ended up where he started.

    Years later I read a quote that said something about the frustration of coming up with a new mathematical idea only to realize "that Newton knew it in his crib" and I know the feeling.

  4. The show writers don't seem to understand academia. A professor died and a bunch of researchers then started to try to compete for the tenured position that had just opened up.

  5. I must be misunderstanding point #2: is the point that you don't believe a neurobiologist could do hard math...?
    If so, you should look up e.g. Karl Friston, a (highly cited) neuroscientist who's work is famously so complicated that teams of physicists have struggled to really understand what he's doing.

  6. I was asking the question of how realistic it is that a neuroscientist
    would know hard math and physics. And you gave an awesome example of one who does. Kudos to both you and Karl Friston!

    That raises the next question of

    How commons is it for a neuroscientist to know hard math and physics. My guess is more common that I thought.

    Does Amy know the hard math and physics? Amy is ficitional so its hard to say, though she has been shown to be brilliant.