On the Big Bang Theory's Success: A Causal Analysis

By Clemens, Will | Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

On the Big Bang Theory's Success: A Causal Analysis


Clemens, Will, Pennsylvania Literary Journal


Abstract:

As background to The Big Bang Theory, the American situation comedy in its sixth season on CBS, this article summarizes philosophies of causation (or causality) from the idea of karma in the oldest Upanishads to causality in two influential writings associated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science: Ernst Mayr's "Cause and Effect in Biology" (1961) and Edward Lorenz's "Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wing in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas" (1972). Mayr's article reignited a discussion of causality in terms of proximal and distal causes. Lorenz's paper launched the theoretical example of the butterfly effect, a hallmark of chaos theory. Definitions of chaos from Hesiod and Aristotle and of cosmogony and cosmology from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab at Caltech serve as context for an analysis of chaos theory as a motif of TBBT, which takes place at Caltech, among other places. American and international ratings indicate large viewership for this sitcom amid the Age of Reality TV. Analyses and critiques of the first two episodes ("Pilot" and "The Big Bran Hypothesis") in light of relevant criticism by Bednarek, Quail, Yin, and others reveal that TBBT's success lies mostly in its art direction, performances, and writing. Effects of the show's success include positive takes on science and religion in the West and burgeoning interests in physics among college students-ironic when literary functions, mise en scène, and theatrical performances, elements more associated with arts and English than science departments, have so contributed to the show's success.

Causality, Chaos Theory, and The Big Bang Theory

In 1961, Ernst Mayr's "Cause and Effect in Biology" appeared in Science, the academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS); the article by the renowned German biologist proved "hugely influential," jumpstarting a discussion of causality in terms of proximate and ultimate (or distal) causes that remains charged among biologists today (Layland 1512). A proximate cause is an event closest to or immediately responsible for an effect; the distal cause is the real reason for that effect. The terms may be applied outside the field of biology. For example, when the Titanic sank at 2:20 AM April 15, 1912, the proximate cause was that five of six watertight compartments on her starboard side opened up, causing the ship to gradually fill with water; the distal cause was that at 11:40 PM April 14 she hit an iceberg, causing the hull plates to buckle inwards in a number of locations on her starboard side. Given the arresting, logistical application of the terms, no wonder the subject of causality has interested philosophers for millennia.

The idea of karma, that concept or deed that believably causes the cycle of cause and effect, may be observed in even the oldest Upanishads. Affinities for the Upanishads are extant in Aristotle's Physics, which distinguished between four causes: material, formal, efficient, and final. In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas imposed a favorite hierarchy on the order or priority of the causes: final, efficient, material, and formal. During the Renaissance, Machiavelli's The Prince criticized the predominance of medieval Catholicism's classical teleology. In the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon criticized Aristotelian methods in New Method. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature expanded Aristotle's four causes into a list of eight ways of judging whether two things might be cause and effect. Since these ways dealt with cause and effect in space and time, they have been of interest to modern physicists like Max Born and Walther Bothe and contemporary chaos theorists like Edward Lorenz and Robert Shaw.

At the 139th annual meeting of the AAAS, in 1972 in Wash- ington, DC, Lorenz, a meteorologist from New England, presented a paper titled "Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wing in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas? …

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