The Big Bang Theory: “The Helium Insufficiency” (2015)

big bang theory helium

“Not Just a Lot of Hot Air”

While on sabbatical this semester, I have been drafting a book, tentatively entitled, Molecular Cinema. I am interested in pointing my field of media studies in a different direction, one as concerned with materiality as it is with ideology. My most basic question is, What are images made of? Heretofore, scholars have been blind to the fact that media images capture the world at the molecular level in truly surprising ways. While I am most interested in important molecules to life on Earth, such as water and salt, a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory points us toward the airy and invisible, helium, that simplest of the noble gases.

In the episode entitled, “The Helium Insufficiency,” our intrepid physics heroes discover that they are about to be scooped by researchers in Sweden. Having run out of helium, with a new supply on backorder for months, Sheldon and Leonard are desperate. They turn to a shady character, Kenneth Fitzgerald (played with particular relish by the great comic bit actor, Michael Rapaport) who sells them a cylinder of helium out of an unmarked white van, in that most shady of places, a public parking garage.

This is not the first time that helium floated a plot of The Big Bang Theory. In “The Vengeance Formulation” from season three, Cooper’s nemesis, Barry Kripke (played with a hilarious Elmer Fudd accent by John Ross Bowie) pumps helium into a radio studio where Sheldon is giving a national interview live on NPR. Sheldon is humiliated when he begins delivering complex scientific information in a comically squeaky voice. Here, via the language of television aesthetics, the invisible gas records its presence in the show; the lightness of the helium compared to breathable air makes us hear Jim Parson’s voice in a completely new, and very funny, way. Sheldon’s arrogance is once again exposed and punished, this time by smothering him in a noble gas.

At first, it would seem that the choice of helium in the new episode is merely an insignificant plot point, the gas interchangeable with any other to demonstrate the physicists’ need to complete a science experiment. However, the particular history of helium is laden with social significance. Discovered and studied in the late 19th century, with an increased understanding of the structure and function of the atom, helium became by World War I a significant military commodity. Despite being produced by the fusion of hydrogen atoms in stars, and thus a highly abundant material in the universe, terrestrial helium is quite rare, needing to be mined from the Earth. During World War I and after, the United States monopolized the production of helium, for use in military airships. The gas was extracted from natural gas reserves, most plentiful under the American Great Plains.

In 1925, the National Helium Reserve in Amarillo, Texas positioned the United States as the global master of the resource. Through a series of congressional actions, this hegemonic position was solidified. For example, 1927’s Helium Control Act, which prohibited any export of helium, fairly directly led to the Hindenburg disaster: in the subsequent decade, Germany was unable to use the inert and thus safe gas to fill its zeppelins, having to resort to the lighter, but intensely flammable, hydrogen. “Ah, the humanity,” indeed.

And thus, when Leonard and Sheldon go in search of helium to win their scientific race against Swedish competitors, they are allegorically re-enacting something far more significant than the episode divulges. Even Kenneth, the ne’er-do-well helium dealer laments, “I expected more of our colleagues in Sweden.” But this is not just a story of Europe vs. the United States. After years of helium shortages, as a result of the US Congress in 1996 privatizing the helium reserves, and selling off the supply, Qatar now houses the world’s largest helium production facility, producing by 2014, for the first time in generations, an abundance of helium.

So why would a 2015 episode of The Big Bang Theory perpetuate a myth about the continued shortage of helium? Precisely because the plot is not about a global crisis in scientific information; instead, the boys are concerned that the centrality of Cal Tech, and their role as American scientists, is in jeopardy. This allegorically expresses, not just scientific nationalism, but the very status of the American television sitcom: while the products of the largest global financial media juggernaut, much so-called American cultural production is in fact colonized from the rest of the world. Shockingly, given what we are told about these shows, many network shows are merely re-treads of British, European, and even Israeli television originals. And thus, The Big Bang Theory’s helium episode becomes more than just a material manifestation of a noble gas. The show allegorizes the cultural geography of another one of CBS’s popular shows, Survivor, lifted by creator Mark Burnett from a Swedish original, Expedition Robinson. And that’s not just a lot of hot air. In fact, it might be downright ignoble.