S03E02: The Jiminy Conjecture

I fear that this episode may have disappointed over 10 million people—because there was no physics in it.   It has biology: crickets chirping, entomology, and even a discussion of the neurobiology of alcohol’s effect on the brain.  But apparently no physics.

Not so fast.   Physicists work on biological problems all the time.   So much so that at my own university, UCLA, there is a popular undergraduate major in biophysics.   The fundamental equation of the episode,  the rate of chirps of a cricket versus temperature, as Sheldon tells us, was given by A. E. Dolbear in 1890.  Dr. Dolbear was a professor of physics at Tufts College, not biology.   If you look carefully, you will see his equations describing temperature (in Fahrenheit) versus the number of cricket chirps per minute on the whiteboard in the boys’ apartment.

Dolbear's Law:  Equation describing how a cricket's chirps per minute (N) is related to the ambient temperature (T).

Dolbear's Law: Equation describing how a cricket's chirps per minute (N) is related to the ambient temperature (T).

Of course it must be given separately for the common field cricket (FC) as well as the Snowy Tree Cricket (STC)  and even Katydid (K).  Each chirp is made when the cricket rubs its right forewing against its left forewing that is covered with ridges.  In the process, the creation of this sound is much like running your fingernail over the teeth of a comb.  For insects, the behavior is called stridulation.  For a person strumming a comb, it is probably just called annoying.

The alert viewer no doubt noticed that one digit was different on the whiteboard in the episode than above.  Also, Prof. Dolbear’s first name was Amos, not Emile.  So much for the fact checking by the show’s consultant.

Modern biophysics looks different from Dolbear’s time.  Physicists work on fundamental biological problems, such how a cell works using the special points of view and tools they they have been trained with.   For example,  proteins drive much of the activity of a cell and the subtle folding and unfolding of proteins that occur versus temperature are key to the cellular activity.  Using statistical mechanics, non-linear dynamics, and laboratory techniques borrowed from the physical sciences, physicists are characterizing this key aspect of proteins and thereby understanding the inner workings of a cell.   In another example, a friend of mine tries to understand how our inner ear manages to be such a good amplifier, allowing us to hear both extremely quiet and loud sounds entirely with a small hair that moves only one billionth of a meter and produces very little extraneous noise.

Several years earlier Dolbear had previously done very important work as a physicst.  In 1885 he performed the first wireless telegraphy—several years before Guglielmo Marconi.

New York Times article, Oct 6 1899

New York Times article, Oct 6 1899

So Dolbear was the first to perform wireless telegraphy.  Without wireless telegraphy we’d have no radio.  Without radio we’d have neither the technology for television, nor the first sit-coms written for radio.  And without either, we’d have no show The Big Bang Theory.


9 Responses to “S03E02: The Jiminy Conjecture”

  1. Kristina Says:

    You are a natural David. I loved the blog post. It was educational, entertaining, etc. For a Luddite, you are quite good at using this medium.

  2. Geoff Dolbear Says:

    This was forwarded by an old friend. I saw the Big Bang episode, and was surprised to see the reference to my great-grandfather, Professor AE Dolbear. He was a genius level physicist and inventor, with a long list of firsts including wireless telegraphy (when Marconi was still 8 years old) and a method for sending multiple telepgraph messages over the same line. His early invention of the telephone led to major court battles, which he lost. And, as usual, the winners get to write the history.

    Google his name and learn a lot more about him.

    Geoff Dolbear

  3. Impres Says:

    You could fix the point where you call him “Dr. Dolbert”.

  4. Traducción: “S03E02: The Jiminy Conjecture” « The Big Blog Theory en Español Says:

    [...] Artículo original por David Saltzberg [...]

  5. Heavens to Betsy Says:

    I’m thrilled to have stumbled across this blog via a twitter link! I quickly searched for this episode as I was fortunate enough to attend the taping of this show (on August 18, 2009).

    The scene where Leonard tries to explain the effects of alcohol on the brain to Penny took FOREVER. Poor Johnny Galecki had the worst time trying to get that line out. When he finally did it and they yelled “cut,” the audience erupted with applause!

    Since I have nothing science-y to contribute to this blog, I thought I would offer a little behind-the-scenes scoopage! So there you have it….all of that scientific jargon is quite difficult for some of the cast members to get out.

    Thanks for this wildly entertaining blog!

    • David Saltzberg Says:

      That must have been an anomaly. I am there nearly every episode and we are always amazed at how well the actors get through the lines….and how real they sound to a physicists’ ear. There was one episode with a long physics line about the “Aharanov-Bohm” effect given by Penny, and she nailed it every time…even in rehearsal.

  6. Mike Says:

    The first wireless telegraphy was in 1868. See http://www.smecc.org/mhlon_loomis.htm and http://earlyradiohistory.us/129971.htm

    Professor Loomis’s system wasn’t practical, he didn’t know how it worked, but it was first.

  7. Tradução: “S03E02: The Jiminy Conjecture (A Conjetura de Jiminy)” « The Big Blog Theory (em Português!) Says:

    [...] não teríamos a série The Big Bang Theory. Tradução feita a partir de texto extraído de The Big Blog Theory, de autoria de David Saltzberg, originalmente publicado em 26 de Setembro de [...]

  8. S03E02: La conjecture de Jiminy Says:

    [...] The Big Blog Theory »2009» Septembre Liens [...]

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