Dear Dr. Winkle,
I am an actress and I am auditioning for the role of a young female physicist named Emily for a new sitcom called "Em Theory." I would greatly appreciate a chance to sit down with you and talk about what it's really like to be a woman in the field.
Whatevs. My office hours are 11-1 MWF.
When Penny found Dr. Winkle's office, the door was open. It was Wednesday at 11am. She was surprised to see a petite woman with ethereally pale skin and a mass of dark ringlets pulled back at the nape of her neck, bent over a forbidding tome. She looked less like a physicist than a character from a Jane Austen book (or at least a movie adaptation of a an Austen novel). She knocked on the open door.
"I hope I'm not interrupting... I'm Penny. The actress who e-mailed you."
The woman looked up and gave a dry laugh.
"Of course you are."
Penny had worn an adorable pink business suit for the occasion. The short skirt and long jacket said, "I'm smart and important but I'm feminine, too."
At least that's what the suit said to Penny before she maxed out her Mastercard buying it. She really needed to land this role. She'd lucked into her role as "hot girl next door" on the mega-hit "How I Met Two and a Half Men". A producer from the show had been at her table at the Cheesecake Factory and was immediately taken with her. He'd written the role for the plucky waitress and even made the character from Nebraska. For the longest time, Penny was afraid the man was making it all up to get her into bed. Then she met his 'partner', Frank. Within three months of moving to California, she had a recurring role on a hit show. She loved working on the program but the character didn't even have a name. She was simply "hot girl". Penny felt she needed something more to stretch her as an actress. Like a character name. Or some lines.
Under Dr. Leslie Winkle's withering gaze, Penny suddenly knew her pink suit said, "I'm a dumb blonde."
"It's so great to meet you, Dr. Winkle. I've never met a girl scientist before!" Penny was extra effusive hoping to make up for her poor first impression.
"That's me. Come for the breasts, stay for the brains. So this show is seriously called 'Em Theory'? That's kind of funny."
Penny nodded, her face blank.
Leslie grabbed a dry erase marker and went to her board. Penny pulled out her notebook and pen.
"M-theory unites the five string theories..." Leslie took another look at Penny's blank face, "Okay, let's take a step back. You've heard of atoms, right?"
Penny nodded, "I've heard of them..."
Leslie sighed heavily and began drawing an atom.
An hour later, Penny kind of understood M-theory. She was sorry when some stupid undergraduate knocked on the door and Leslie needed to end their lesson.
"Leslie. You are a genius!" Penny gushed.
"Yeah. That's why I get paid the big bucks," Leslie smirked but then she looked thoughtful. She told her student to wait while she took Penny down the hall to meet Leslie's "boyfriend."
"I'm still tentatively vetting him as a potential life mate. He has a lot of potential but he definitely comes with baggage."
"A crazy roommate."
"Co-dependent?" Penny had dated guys like that.
"Way past co-dependent, more like fusion."
Dr. Leonard Hofstadter looked exactly the way Penny thought he would. He was short, bespectacled, and rumpled. His face was handsome with sensitive eyes and a mop of Botticelli curls to match Leslie's. He was writing an equation on a white board in red marker, the sleeve of his olive green button down was stained red from where it brushed across the board. He was the absent minded professor Penny had imagined filling the halls of Caltech.
She mouthed, "Your babies will be so cute!"
Leslie gave her a forced smile.
"Go. Away," he snapped without looking away from his work.
"Better talk nicer than that if you're hoping to get any this weekend," Leslie retorted dryly.
Leonard jumped and apologized, "I thought you were... someone else."
"Sheldon?" asked Leslie with a hint of derision.
"He's on this new kick about whether or not he could be Batman if he had the start up capital... Hi, I'm Leonard."
Penny was surprised by his friendly demeanor. He was so different from the cool and cynical Leslie. But then, looking at Leslie's face as she eyed at her "potential life mate", she didn't look so cool anymore.
"Penny is an actress and she's auditioning for some dumbass show about physicists. I just explained M-theory to her but now I've got some chucklehead in my office I need to take care of. I thought Blondie could hang out with you and your loser friends and see the real magic of science."
She didn't wait for an answer or say goodbye, she just turned on her heel and left. Leonard gave Penny another warm smile.
"Come meet my loser friends. You're in for a treat, it's steak'um day in the cafeteria."
Even from a distance, Leonard's friends looked... different. There was a smallish guy with a Dorothy Hamil haircut and rather startling green eyes. The color of his eyes was both complemented and totally overshadowed by the lime green turtleneck and bright yellow sweater he was wearing. There was a nice-looking Indian man in a hideous sweater vest who looked away nervously the moment Penny entered the room. The only normal looking guy was tall and lanky with short dark hair and bright blue eyes. He wore a Batman tee-shirt over a pale blue long sleeved shirt.
The guy in the batman shirt was probably Sheldon and she was pretty sure she knew which one was Rajesh. That made the guy in the turtle neck Howard.
"Howard can be a bit much with girls but he's harmless. Raj can't talk to women at all so don't be offended..."
"Not at all?"
"No. Not even Leslie and she tells him all the time she has a bigger dick than him. Sheldon. There's no explaining Sheldon. Just don't be offended."
"By anything he says. He's just... He's just Sheldon."
Penny immediately hit it off with Sheldon. He seemed wary of an intruder at the table but he was intrigued by the idea of a sitcom about physicists.
"Em theory. That's clever. It's about time network executives tapped the rich comedic vein that is accurately portrayed theoretical science. I have a joke you can use!"
The tall man pulled out a notebook and wrote an equation. When he turned it to the group, they all laughed heartily. Even Raj chuckled before he caught himself and went back to his awkward silence.
Penny stared blankly at the mess of numbers and symbols.
"It's a spoof of the Born-Oppenheimer approximation," explained Sheldon. He must have imagined he was being helpful.
"Why is there a kitty over the first part of the equation?" Penny asked, hoping she would somehow get the humor.
"That's Schrödinger's cat."
Leonard almost choked on his soda.
"I had no idea science was so funny!" She still wasn't sure science was funny but clearly these guys thought so and therefore, so would her character.
"We're full of surprises," added Howard with a creepy sly smile.
"You'd be surprised how many particle physicists have a whimsical side," mused Leonard.
Penny spent the whole afternoon at Caltech. She quickly realized Leslie had a special gift for explaining the complex and making it accessible to those without her level of education. The rest of the science she heard was pure gobbledygook.
She spent an hour being hit on by Howard as he explained why he was an engineer but worked for the physics department. She was impressed by the fact he worked so directly with NASA and by the way he could turn everything into a double entandre. The fact he could do so in six languages was simply remarkable.
"I don't know Russian so I'm not sure what you're asking me, Howard, but somehow I know the answer is NO!"
She didn't learn much from Raj but Leonard explained his work the best he could while Raj stared at his hands.
"I'm sorry I can't explain it better, I only know the basics of astrophysics."
"Leonard, you're talking to a girl who just found out the sun was a star."
Every corner of Sheldon's office was filled with white boards.
"Sheldon is a theoretical physicist so.... mainly he does that," Leonard pointed to Sheldon as he stared at his white board, stroking his chin, "and sometimes he writes things down."
"The stuff he writes down is amazing. Really brilliant paradigm shifting stuff but most of the time... He just stands there thinking."
It took nearly five minutes for Sheldon to acknowledge their presence and only seconds to explain what he was doing.
"I'm working on a theory to explain and unify everything in the universe."
Penny wished him luck. He looked pleased and thanked her. Then he chased them out of his office.
They spent the rest of their time together using machines from Leonard's lab to freeze and heat up food. They exchange cell numbers so she could let him know how her audition went.
Penny met with her acting coach, Ellie, to create "Emily".
"Why is Emily a physicist?"
Penny kicked herself for not asking anyone that very question.
"Come on, Penny, make this character your own. Why is she a physicist?" Ellie prompted in a gentle voice.
Penny closed her eyes and thought of Sheldon.
"She wants to understand."
Penny wore the pink suit to her audition but curled and pulled her hair back in an imitation of Leslie. Emily would wear a pink suit. Like Howard, she dressed "big" because she felt small. Penny was tempted to put ink on her sleeves from the white board but odds were the casting director would just think she didn't do her laundry. There's a fine line between looking like a committed actor and looking like an idiot.
She'd been studying her notes relentlessly. She could see the string of bosons extending through dimensions or wrapping into a loop.
Then she walked into the room and her mind went blank.
When the director asked if she'd ever heard of M-theory, all she could remember was "the m stands for membrane."
The director raised an eyebrow. She wanted to knock the smug look right off his face.
"Um, but scientists like..." was his name Mitten? No, that was a cat name. It was... "Witten didn't actually buy into the membrane concept so they just went with M-theory so the m can stand for anything. Even an upside down W for Witten."
The director smiled. Penny tilted her head and fiddled with her thumbnail as she spoke in an imitation of Leonard, but the cool smile she gave after the Witten comment was all Leslie.
She was crying when she called Leonard.
"Oh, no. What happened?"
"I got it! I got it! The lead in a network show! I couldn't have done it without you guys. Dinner is on me tonight!"
Penny met everyone at Leonard and Sheldon's apartment. When she tried to sit on the couch, Leonard jumped and told her not to sit there.
"That's sort of 'Sheldon's spot'. He always sits there," explained Leslie, "Leonard is just being over-protective because he knows Sheldon won't say anything."
No one met Penny's eyes.
When Sheldon walked into the room, she noticed he was wearing another tee-shirt over a long sleeved tee. She wondered if he got cold easily.
"Did you change your pants?" asked Howard, looking confused.
"Yes," Sheldon replied with a glare at his roommate, "Leonard poured a glass of grape juice on the pants I was wearing."
From the corner of her eye, Penny saw Leslie give Leonard a fist bump.
After a brief discussion, they decided to order in so they could chat more comfortably. Penny was looking forward to picking their brilliant minds. When she asked what food they should order Sheldon, Leslie and Leonard all said Chinese in unison.
Penny sat on the couch squeezed between Leslie and Sheldon. Sheldon seemed protective of his personal space but Leslie kept forcing her over. As petite as Leslie and Leonard were, Penny doubted they actually needed to take up over half the couch. So this is how doctorate holding geniuses play cupid, with the subtlety of a horse kick to the face. When she excused herself to go to the bathroom, she noticed a foot of room between Leonard and Leslie on the couch. She wondered if poor Sheldon had any idea what his friends were up to.
"Will you move down! Penny's practically in my lap! I'll never be able to eat like this," Sheldon snapped as Penny walked out of the room. That answered that.
Penny laughed to herself at the boys' bathroom. Periodic table of the elements on the shower curtain, Star Wars hair products, another white board. Wow. On a towel rack hung a pair of the most hideous plaid pants she'd ever seen. Naturally, they were stained with grape juice. Poor Sheldon. A man of his intellect being foisted on some actress who dropped out of community college.
Leonard was smiling but his teeth were clenched. Penny tried to lighten the mood by turning to Howard.
"You went to MIT, right? Is this the kind of formula you saw on the bathroom stalls under 'here I sit broken hearted'?"
"I saw more derivations of the classic 'heat of the meat' and its proportion to the 'angle of the dangle' than the Dutch."
"Do you ever say anything that isn't filled with sexual innuendo?" Penny asked.
Howard furrowed his brow, "I'm sorry. I blanked out when you said sexual. What was the question?"
Sheldon explained why his board contained "real science". She didn't understand a word of it (except the word boson, she remembered that from Leslie) but she loved watching him explain his work. His eyes were lit up and he had a hint of a smile on his boyishly handsome face. His long arms flailed dangerously (she had to duck a few times) in his enthusiasm. Between his height, his long limbs and his grandiose personality, he seemed larger than life. Penny thought he would make a wonderful sitcom character. She also thought she could definitely have a crush on this guy. The fact that he seemed indifferent to her looks made him all the more appealing. Especially when she had Howard hitting on her in Arabic, Farsi and Klingon. She wondered if Farsi was a real language or another Star Wars thing. Or Star Trek thing. She decided to keep her mouth shut and google it later.
"Penny, I'm curious," Sheldon fixed his blue eyes on her in a way that was thrilling and terrifying. She felt like she was on 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire' and about to go out on the first question.
"Why are you willing to sacrifice a steady job on a successful sitcom for a pilot that may never be picked up? You may well end up out of work and penniless."
"I can't imagine a worse fate than being... Penny-less," interjected Howard.
"Wow, Howard. How do you make everything sound so gross? Um. I guess when I came to California... I thought I wanted to be a movie or tv star but now I know I want to be an actress."
She looked at five blank faces.
"I want to... Don't laugh," she suddenly felt very exposed. Here she was talking about her "craft" to certified geniuses who were trying to figure out the universe.
"Are you going to say something funny?" Sheldon asked, "Because I am not very good at restraining my laughter when I hear something funny. For instance, last week when Leonard and I..."
"Shut up, Dumbass," Leslie snapped, "Penny's trying to bare her soul here."
Sheldon glared at Leonard, clearly holding him responsible for Leslie's churlish behavior. Penny had the sense it was exhausting to be Leonard.
"When I think of physicists, I think of gray-haired old men. Maybe if I saw a young woman like Emily on tv growing up, then I wouldn't have been so afraid of science. I'm not saying I could ever be like you guys cause you're all freaky deaky smart but maybe I could have, I don't know, finished college. It's just a silly tv show but I feel like it could mean something to someone and I really really want to do this character justice."
Penny could feel her face flushing. She never talked about her acting like this, much less to a bunch of people she barely knew.
Leslie nodded thoughtfully, "I get that."
"What made you become a physicist?" Penny asked (belatedly).
"It was a total act of rebellion. My parents were hippies and they always wanted me to express my feelings and crap."
"Wow," Penny mused, "I just rebelled by smoking pot and dating losers."
"I had to shove wet towels under my door just to stay straight. As for dating losers..." Leslie jerked her head meaningfully towards Leonard who laughed.
"That's me, the black sheep of the Hofstadter family," when Penny laughed, Leonard turned serious, "My sister's a doctor, my brother's a lawyer. As far as my parents are concerned, unless I win a Nobel prize, I may as well still be working at White Castle."
"Did you really work at White Castle?" Penny imagined Leonard in a suit jacket and a hair net.
"Don't be overly impressed," Sheldon interjected, "His brother got him the job."
"Yeah, he was the assistant manager. I was never able to advance that far myself, thanks to some rather scathing performance reviews from a certain anal retentive assistant manager who thought I wasn't fully committed to the White Castle ideal."
"I lost my job at Walmart when my brother shop lifted a bunch of cleaning products and cold medicine," commiserated Penny.
Sheldon looked confused, "Does your brother have dust allergies?"
"Yes, Sheldon," offered Howard with a smirk, "He was mixing up a bath tub full of allergy medicine."
Penny fell in love when Sheldon nodded like that made perfect sense. He was a perfect innocent untouched by current trends, popular media or household allergens.
She would have loved to have heard Raj explain why he became an astrophysicist. He looked so animated as he whispered into Howard's ear. Clearly he had a great passion for his work. Somehow she felt the explanation suffered in Howard's translation.
"Raj likes stars."
Howard became an engineer because he liked to put things together, repair what was broken, make things work when it seemed impossible.
Penny rehearsed the words in her mind, knowing somehow she would use this story as an actress. Howard had just laid his soul bare without offering a single personal detail. In explaining his career choice he had presented a story of a young man from a broken family, brokenhearted and burdened with guilt. It was so clear, you didn't have to be a genius to figure it out. Penny had to excuse herself again before she cried. As she left the room she heard Sheldon ask, "Do you think your choice of career was influenced by your parents' ugly divorce and your father's subsequent abandonment?"
Penny was squeezed between the bony hips of Leslie and Sheldon trying to eat her egg rolls. She was starting to see why Leslie was so eager to find Sheldon a girl. When she asked,"What do you guys do for fun?" Sheldon responded with, "Mondays alternate between Klingon boggle and RPGs, Tuesday is either bowling or movie night, Wednesday..."
Every night was boys' night. There didn't seem to be much time for a girlfriend in Sheldon's schedule of activities. When Leonard seemed embarrassed by the torrent of activities including "old-school video night" and "New comic book day", Penny jumped in.
"My girlfriends back home and I were the same way. No make-up Mondays, total whore Tuesdays, wacky Wednesday, throw-back Thursdays. Oh, freaky Fridays when we would wear each other's clothes!"
"Those aren't activities!" Sheldon interrupted, "Those are simply dress suggestions with no connection to the day other than a shared first letter..."
"Shut up, Sheldon," snapped Howard, "Tell me more about total whore Tuesdays."
"I think I speak for all my homegirls back in Nebraska when I say 'not with a thousand condoms', Howard."
Howard's eyes lit up, "So there is a number?"
"You should come to the Riff Trax show next week!" suggested Howard. Penny was eager to spend time with her new nerdmigos (Howard was sleazy but he had a way with words) but they were having trouble coming up with a shared interest.
"It's the actors from MST3K..." Leonard began.
"Is that like a charity run?"
"It's an abbreviation for Mystery Science Theater 3000," stated Sheldon as though that were some kind of explanation.
"Is that... a theater?" Penny was trying not to be dense but they just seemed to be saying random unconnected words.
"It's a show were a bunch of nerds watch bad movies and make jokes about it. They're doing a live show so all the nerds can get together and listen to those nerds make their jokes," explained Leslie.
"Oh! So the actors from the show will be there?"
They all shook their heads no.
"It's pretty funny and we won't be the only girls there. Trust me, this is your best option with these losers."
"Great! I'll be there!"
Howard leaned in meaningful, "The show is on a... Tuesday."
"Not even with 2,000 condoms."
Penny dressed casual for her "movie date" with the geniuses and quickly realized she was still overdressed. She had suggested a nice little Italian place for dinner but Leslie vetoed it stating Leonard lived in fear of the three tined fork. She could hear Leonard in the background saying, "Yeah. Forks are for eating. Tridents are for ruling the seven seas." Leonard was apparently much more eccentric than he let on. No wonder Leslie had her reservations.
Instead they had Chinese again. Sheldon seemed unhappy that the restaurant had changed its menu since his last visit.
"General Tso's chicken has moved from the specials to the chicken section. Has the chef lost faith in the dish or himself?"
Penny tried the shrimp with mobster sauce on a double dog dare from Howard. She did not notice any chunks of mobster so she was fairly certain it was a misprint despite Sheldon's concerns. She felt his blue eyes following her judgmentally as she double dipped her egg roll. The first time had been an accident but now she was enjoying the intensity of his gaze. He was one of those guys you just had to torment. It seemed to make no difference to Sheldon that she requested a new duck sauce so no one else would be exposed to her germs. It was apparently verboten to double dip even in your own personal bowl. He was a bit of a wackadoodle but a cute wackadoodle.
Penny suggested they get a couple scorpion bowls. Leslie suggested they get one since, "No one at this table weighs over 100 lbs."
"Excuse me, I weigh 145 lbs," announced Sheldon, seeming appalled by her hyperbole.
"You're 6'7 and weigh 120lbs. Do you really thinking you're making an argument there?"
Leonard began wildly waving for the waitress to bring them a scorpion bowl.
"This is so good! You should try it, Sheldon!" Penny wheedled.
Sheldon shook his head and sighed, "Even if I did consume ethyl alcohol, which I don't, I would hardly want to partake in this communal tub of germs and backwashed saliva."
Penny picked up Sheldon's diet coke and took a sip before putting it back down. Her eyes never left his.
His right eye was twitching.
Howard reached over and grabbed the glass and took a swig and handed it to Raj who avoided Sheldon's glare as he took his own sip and passed the glass to Leslie. Leslie took a drink and passed the glass to Leonard who tried to refuse.
"You guys all get to go home, I have to live with him."
"Don't be a wimp, Hofstadter. Drink the soda," Leslie's eyes were steel.
"Don't be absurd, Leonard. That glass is now a petri dish." Sheldon was just as steely.
"Leonard," Penny spoke meaningfully, "this soda isn't a soda. It's a symbol of independence of..."
She couldn't think of another word for independence.
"Autonomy?" suggested Howard.
"Sure, that. Drink this soda and it will set you free."
"And it will get you laid," added Leslie.
Leonard drained the glass. Then he spit the soda back into the glass and put it front of a horrified Sheldon.
"Now that is all backwash."
Raj almost choked.
"That was so funny, dude! I almost snarfed into the scorpion bowl! Why are you all staring at me? I said I almost snarfed. The scorpion bowl is fine."
"Raj, you're t-"
Penny was cut off by Howard, "Let's let him figure it out. I must say, Penny, you have been a delightful influence on our little group. Leslie is pretending to be nice, Leonard is standing up to Sheldon, Raj is... enjoying a scorpion bowl. Now what are you going to do to change my life?"
"If you don't get your hand off my leg, I'm going to punch you so hard in the sack you'll be able to sing soprano."
"You're feisty. I like that in a woman."
The movie was funny. There were a lot of references she didn't get that had the geniuses guffawing but there were also plenty of references that only she got: references to things that were current and popular that sailed over their overly educated heads.
Sheldon had picked their seats by moving around the room chanting until he found the "sonic sweet spot". When she sat next to him, he quickly and protectively moved his soda to his other side forcing everyone in the group to move their sodas as well. When she took his hand in hers, his whole body tensed but he didn't pull away. His eyes kept glancing furtively in her direction but he never acknowledged her hand or made any move of his own. Her hand went to sleep from the awkward position but there was no way she was letting go until the lights went up. When they did, she slapped her totally numb hand against Howard who both deserved and enjoyed being smacked. Raj laughed and slapped his hand over his mouth, eyes wide. The scorpion bowl had worn off.
In the lobby, she pretended she couldn't overhear Sheldon and Leonard arguing. She only heard bits and pieces like Leonard saying, "It's social protocol" and "your mom wants grandchildren" and Sheldon saying "Why would she need help finding her car? Has her short term memory been impaired in some way?" and "Is this 'walk' supposed to end in impregnation?"
Penny had a feeling Sheldon didn't date much.
She also had a feeling "Em Theory" could be a great sitcom. There was clearly a price to be paid for being a genius. These were people so intelligent, they would have been burned as witches in another century. People aren't meant to be that smart.
Sheldon walked over to Penny and informed her he would be walking her to her car despite the fact that he could offer no threat to a potential assailant but he assured her he had an app on his phone that made a loud and piercing siren noise while dialing 911.
Penny took his hand again as they walked.
"I should have a script by the end of next week. I'd love it if we could get together and discuss it."
"Of course, I can schedule some time in my office on Friday..."
"I was thinking over dinner."
"On Fridays I eat Italian."
"I know a great place..."
"Does it have standard cutlery?"
"I don't know what that means."
Sheldon explained why the three-tined fork wasn't a fork. It was a familiar argument. She sensed more L&L meddling.
"I think Leslie wants me to get you out of the house so she can have more alone time with Leonard."
Sheldon scowled, "I wouldn't be surprised. She wants to marry and procreate with Leonard and raise their children to believe in loop quantum gravity."
"Yes! She may as well teach them the world is flat and stands still while the sun revolves around it."
"What's loop quantum gravity?"
She tried to pay attention and learn, she really did. Oh, hell, she'd ask Leslie to explain it later.
When she kissed him, he froze, arms locked at his sides. When she pulled back he looked so shocked she had to kiss him again. He was so absurdly smart and so unbearably cute and, possibly for the first time in his life, he was speechless.
As she drove away, she saw the geniuses come out of the woodwork and surround Sheldon. She watched him flinch when Howard tried to give him a high five and she couldn't stop smiling the rest of the way home.