Just the flasks, ma’am

Amy: [P]ut yourself on the business end of a sponge and wash those beakers. . . . Hippity-hop, quick like a bunny.
Sheldon: What? Excuse me, you have Dr. Sheldon Cooper in your lab. You’re gonna make him do the dishes?
“The Vacation Solution” (Season 5, Episode 16)

Washing glassware in a biology lab: yet another activity Sheldon considers himself above. No surprise there.

Why then is the Nerd giggling to himself? Because that scrap of dialogue does contain a surprise — a big one. But the character who utters it is Amy.

Of the five pieces of glassware that she refers to as “those beakers,” only one is actually a beaker. The other four are flasks: two Erlenmeyer flasks and two volumetric flasks.

Is the difference important? Let’s see.

A beaker vaguely resembles a cylindrical drinking glass:


A beaker. Not named after a Muppet.

An Erlenmeyer flask has a conical body and a narrow neck:

Erlenmeyer flask

An Erlenmeyer flask. Not named after two guys called Earl and Meyer.

A volumetric flask has a pear-shaped body and a narrow neck:

Volumetric flask

A volumetric flask. [Insert your own joke here.]

Along with test tubes and Bunsen burners, flasks are some of the most cliché pieces of laboratory apparatus ever seen on television. Their distinctive outlines give them a markedly un-beaker-like appearance — which makes sense, since flasks and beakers are typically used for quite different purposes.

Calling a beaker and four flasks “those beakers” would be tantamount to calling the entire cast of The Bachelor “those dudes,” something Sheldon and Amy (along with most of the other main characters on The Big Bang Theory) would be extremely likely to know. Yet they act as though they don’t.

Or are they only acting as though they’re acting as though they don’t?

(To be fair, a short time later Amy utters the words “this beaker” while holding what is indeed the lone beaker in the group. But that doesn’t prove that she knows that the other items are emphatically not beakers. It’s hard to tell, since Amy doesn’t always speak precisely. For instance, she sometimes claims to be a neuroscientist and sometimes a neurobiologist.)1

Mayim Bialik, who portrays Amy, has a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA in real life (impressive!) and surely knows the difference between a beaker and a flask. (In fact — even more impressive — she also knows the difference between neuroscience and neurobiology.) Presumably, she knew the words “those beakers” were inaccurate while she was speaking them.

Yet she spoke them. Can we infer from this that she’s in collusion with the show’s set dressers and props department in a grand conspiracy to misrepresent reality and de-educate the TV-watching public?

Maybe. But more likely it was done for purely comedic reasons. A nod from the show to TV’s grand tradition of careless science clichés, perhaps? Really pretty amusing, when you come to think of it.

OK, well — the Nerd thought so, anyway.


1. E.g., “The Contractual Obligation Implementation” (Season 6, Episode 18) and “The Bon Voyage Reaction” (Season 6, Episode 24), respectively.