The same way that The Office wouldn’t be the same if the characters didn’t all work in a boring job, The Big Bang Theory would lose most of its charm and humor if its central players weren’t all geniuses. Sheldon (Jim Parsons) wouldn’t have all his prickly charms without his multiple doctorate degrees, and we wouldn’t root so hard for Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and his relationship with Penny (Kaley Cuoco) if he wasn’t such an all-consuming smartypants. The delight of watching these brains navigating many of the same day-to-day problems that the rest of us face is the hook of the show, and the reason it ran for 12 seasons.
At the end of the day, however, Sheldon isn’t really a celebrated experimental physicist – he’s the creation of a talented team of sitcom writers. And while the show has science consultants to make sure they get the details just right, considering it ran for 279 episodes, they were bound to get things wrong from time to time. On a show like The Big Bang Theory, these missteps can feel extra-jarring.
Such is the case of one particular screw-up from series regular Howard (Simon Helberg). When eagle-eyed fans caught the engineer making a scientific error, it was hard to just let it go. In the plot of the show, Howard is such a successful and knowledgable engineer that he even becomes an astronaut, so seeing him slip on what should be an easy factoid was tough to stomach. Let’s dive in and see exactly what gave away the fact that Howard is not quite as much of a genius as he says he is.
The time Howard got a basic engineering fact wrong
Howard’s slip-up came in the season 8 episode “The Junior Professor Solution.” When Sheldon gets promoted to the role of junior professor teaching graduate students, he encounters one big problem in that his reputation as a jerk precedes him, and nobody has signed up to take his class. Well, nobody signs up except for Howard. As the only one of the friend group without his doctorate, Howard sees it as an opportunity to work toward achieving that goal. Sheldon, of course, sees it as an opportunity to prove that he’s smarter than his friend.
The situation eventually devolves into an intellectual contest. Sheldon insists that he’s smarter than Howard because he has a Ph.D., while Howard asserts he has the edge over Sheldon because he has work experience as an engineer. In order to try and demonstrate that, even without a doctorate, he knows more about engineering than Sheldon, Howard devises a quiz for his friend. It was here that astute fans noticed the character make a major slip up.
When Howard asks Sheldon, “How do you quantify the strength of materials?” Sheldon replies, “Young’s Modulus.” Howard declares that the answer is correct. As some smart viewers pointed out, however, Young’s Modulus doesn’t quantify a material’s strength, but rather, its elasticity (via The Sun).
While we’re putting this blunder squarely on Howard’s shoulders, as he’s the engineer in the group, it also shows that Sheldon isn’t quite the mastermind he presents himself to be. And that’s not the only time that fact is revealed.
Sheldon repeats a myth about Einstein
For someone who puts himself on a pedestal above just about everyone else due to his intelligence, Sheldon has said and done more than a few dumb things in his time. One of the biggest “Aren’t these guys supposed to be geniuses?” mistakes the show ever made was during the season 5 episode “The Vacation Solution.” When Sheldon is forced to use his paid time off from work, instead of using the days off to relax, he decides to take a vacation … to his girlfriend Amy’s biology lab.
Amy puts Sheldon to work cleaning beakers and counting bacteria spores, which he not only hates, but at which he is very bad. When Sheldon protests and asks for a more interesting assignment, Amy points out that he has failed spectacularly at the very simple assignments she’s given him so far. In protest, Sheldon exclaims, “Maybe that’s because I’m not being challenged. It’s the same reason Einstein failed math.”
It’s no secret that, as a fellow theoretical physicist, Sheldon idolizes Einstein. And, as a fan of Einstein, Sheldon should know that the idea that he failed math is nothing more than an Internet urban legend. Einstein wasn’t a model student in every subject, but there’s no record that he ever failed math (via History). Repeating the debunked factoid may have made for a decent punchline, but it makes it hard for the viewer to believe that Sheldon is really as smart as the show wants us to think.