When someone wrote to Richard Feynman to tell him how his bongo-drumming habit “proved that physicists can also be human,” Feynman shot back a scathing reply: “I am human enough to tell you to go fuck yourself.” Why was Feynman so angry? Because for him, the notion that physicists had to “prove” their humanity by having non-scientific interests was an arrogant presumption. Why not point to a guitarist who enjoys doing math on the side, as “proof that musicians can also be human”?
While it’s possible that Feynman overreacted to what was meant as a compliment, a quick glance at American popular culture demonstrates that he had a point. In the minds of many Hollywood writers, there are apparently only two kinds of scientist: (1) the asexual nerd who babbles incomprehensibly before getting killed around scene 3 (unless of course he’s the villain), and (2) the occasional character who’s human “despite” being a scientist, as demonstrated by his or her charm, physical agility, and fashion sense. The idea that one can be both nerdy and sympathetic — indeed, that nerdiness might even have positive aspects — is absent.
This trend is so pervasive that, whenever a movie bucks it even partly, I’m inclined to overlook any other flaws it might have. Thus, for example, I enjoyed both A Beautiful Mind and Enigma, despite those movies’ liberal departures from the true stories on which they were based. But the most unabashed celebration of nerdiness I’ve seen in cinema is a little-known 80’s comedy called Real Genius. I was introduced to this movie by Christine Chung, a friend at Cornell. Then I saw it again with friends at Berkeley. Yesterday I continued the tradition by organizing a screening for friends at Waterloo.
Briefly, Real Genius follows the adventures of Mitch, a 15-year-old who goes to a college obviously based on Caltech, having been recruited by the duplicitous Professor Hathaway to work on powerful lasers. Mitch is sympathetic, not because he defies the stereotype of a 15-year-old at Caltech, but because we’re shown some of the emotions behind that stereotype: the feeling of outsiderness, of taking up space on the planet only at other people’s mercy; the fear of failure, of letting down his parents, Professor Hathaway, and others who “expect great things from him”; but at the same time, the longing for the easy social confidence represented by his roommate Chris (who used to be a teenage prodigy like Mitch, but is now a womanizing slacker). All of this is shown with enough wit and humor that there’s no need for Mitch to make an explicit declaration:
Hath not a nerd eyes? Hath not a nerd hands organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as a quarterback is?