What is it like to be a nerd?

No doubt many of you already know … but for the rest, today’s xkcd comes impressively close (at least, I think it does) to solving the ancient philosophical riddle of how to convey what “being a nerd” feels like to someone cool since birth.



37 Responses to “What is it like to be a nerd?”

  1. Peter Turney Says:

    nerd = cool

  2. Galager Says:

    I don’t like your overly self-proclaimed “nerdiness”. It might be useful as a tactic in high school (though this is also arguable), but continuing using the word “nerd”, and attributing to it serious meaning, beyond certain age is – at least intellectually speaking – a blatant mistake.

    People have certain traits and behaviors; but “nerdiness” in its extreme state is a clinical psychiatric problem, mostly attributed to compulsive or obsessive disorders; e.g., people overly occupied on details.

    Now, to type-cast all or most science people as having these serious problems, as you do, is empirically not true.

  3. Scott Says:

    So it seems there are two problems with the concept of “nerdiness”: that it’s actually cool, and that it’s a clinical psychiatric disorder. :-)

  4. harrison Says:

    @Galager: People have certain traits and behaviors; but “nerdiness” in its extreme state is a clinical psychiatric problem, mostly attributed to compulsive or obsessive disorders; e.g., people overly occupied on details.

    You’re pulling a fast one on us here. By analogy: it’s healthy for a person to care about the way he/she looks. It’s unhealthy for someone to care so much about it that it negatively impacts his/her well-being. Yes, nerdiness can be a problem, and it’s correlated with a decent number of disorders (autism spectrum, AD/HD, etc.) but claiming that being at all “nerdy” and proud of it is somehow sick or wrong or “a mistake” is like saying that because I’m a well-off white male who sometimes votes for Republicans I am the embodiment of evil in this country.

  5. harrison Says:

    Sorry if I’m feeding trolls, BTW.

  6. Scott Says:

    Hey, I wasn’t trying to start a flamewar, just link to an even-more-spot-on-than-average xkcd! :-)

    But since the flames seem to have been lit: what always struck me is that there seem to be two acceptable schools of thought about the “nerdiness” of scientists.

    1. Popular perception: Most scientists and engineers are like the protagonist of the xkcd strip—ha ha, what a bunch of losers!

    2. “Enlightened” response: No, that’s not true! Plenty of scientists and engineers are nothing at all like the xkcd protagonist!

    I belong to a third, admittedly-radical camp. I think that the stereotype has a decent measure of truth, and that the level of tolerance extended to people who fit the stereotype is one way to measure humanity’s moral progress.

  7. Nerd? Says:

    Isn’t “nerd” more or less an American term? I always thought it’s associated with being a social outcast – something that’s a product of anti-intellectualism among high-schoolers in USA.

  8. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    This xkcd strip is WONDERFUL. That scenario is exactly how I have responded to certain inane situations. And how I wish that I had responded to certain other situations, instead of wasting my time being “normal”.

    Note that no one in the strip was intolerant, merely uncomprehending. That may not be optimal, but I see nothing reprehensible in it either. It’s not like strip-searching high-school students.

    What makes this xkcd strip even more fabulous is that it nailed advanced undergraduate mathematics. The harmonic sum of primes is a good question, and the answer is indeed infinity. (Exercise: Prove this using only undergraduate methods, i.e., without the prime number theorem.)

  9. Jonathan Vos Post Says:

    I’m not trying to resurrect the Lockhart’s Lament thread, but this aspect of the nerdiness of Primes is, I think, germane.

    After 75 days of being a Student Teacher of High School Math (after 4 years of recalibrating my methodology since stepping down as University professor) I hit Primes hard, repeatedly, for Algebra 1 students on whom the school system had basically given up.

    I told them that I understood why they hated trying to factor rational expressions, and polynomials, because they had never been made comfortable with doing this for good old fashioned whole numbers.

    I led them by hand through Primes as understood by Euclid. I explained the role that Pythagorus played in breaking Music loose from the pop-culture Mousika, and why he died because of the religious aspects of his cult/gang (i.e. stomped to death while unable to join his homies in escaping, because he would have had to cross a beanfield).

    I had them do the Sieve of Eratosthenes on a 10×10 array of integers 0 through 99, so that they could see the patterns, and have the corrected worksheets as reference in their notebooks.

    I taught them Semiprimes, motivated by Public Key Cryptosystems.

    I suggested that, if they had their iPhones and the like illicitly out, they should check out the “Prime Curios” web site, where I am currently with 2 contibutions of being the #3 contributor in the world.

    When this was all over (and very positively evaluated in writing by a Supervisor who’d retired as teacher after 33 years, and Principal), my “Master Teacher” (an experience High School Math teacher of Algebra, Geometry, AP Statistics, AP Calculus) said, with puzzlement: “You seem to really like primes. What a nerd!”

  10. Galager Says:


    but claiming that being at all “nerdy” and proud of it is somehow sick or wrong or “a mistake” is like saying that because I’m a well-off white male who sometimes votes for Republicans I am the embodiment of evil in this country.

    Hey, I was just trying to make a supposedly serious point about the nature of “nerdiness”. Hence the term “mistake”. I have no moral objection if you like to keep using and thinking of things through the “nerd-cool” lens.
    I just think it’s boring or even infantile (e.g., you are sticking to concept from your childhood, although they have no meaning in your current life).

    BTW, sorry if I’m feeding trolls, too.

  11. Scott Says:

    Greg: I completely agree, the cartoon does show a very nerd-friendly crowd. Which makes sense: since these seem like adults from the dialogue, why would the nerd even be there were the people unfriendly? On the other hand, one can easily imagine the Σi1/pi-computing nerd having spent his whole adolescence without the same luxury of choosing his peer group…

    Incidentally, Σi1/pi=∞ follows readily if one adopts the computer-science convention that pi = i log i, base irrelevant. :-)

  12. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Which makes sense: since these seem like adults from the dialogue

    Yes, for instance it could be a university environment.

    why would the nerd even be there were the people unfriendly?

    That depends on his degree of affliction with self-pity. (Fortunately xkcd and also Foxtrot tent to avoid it.)

    On the other hand, one can easily imagine the summation-computing nerd having spent his whole adolescence without the same luxury of choosing his peer group

    That depends on the high school; and see previous answer.

    By the way, I totally agree with you that the strip search of that high school student was outrageous, and 8/9 of the Supreme Court mostly agreed too. But note that the strip search allegedly had a pro-geek motivation. According to the dissenting opinion, the school was suspicious of the student because she was popular, because she was associated with parties that had alcohol.

    Incidentally, the sum follows readily if one adopts the computer-science convention that p_i = i log i, base irrelevant.

    Brilliant, Scott, instead explicitly citing the prime number theorem, let’s call it a “convention”.

    There is a direct proof of divergence based on Euler products, i.e., based on multiplying together the geometric series sum_n 1/p^n for each prime. It is weaker than the prime number theorem.

    (Unfortunately I cannot match your superscripts and subscripts, because WordPress removes them. Or at least it used to.)

  13. Carl Says:

    Here’s what I said about the comic on reddit:

    Re: the title text, “My favorite thing to do at parties is to talk judgementally about people who aren’t there.”

    No, he does it in comics posted to the internet instead.

    I’m sorry, but this comic is a wank, even by xkcd-standards. “Oh, check me out, I’m such a cool-nerd that I just zone out and think about prime numbers at parties.” Sorry dude, that doesn’t make you deep, it makes you self-absorbed.

    It’s true that xkcd hate has become somewhat fashionable, but I really do think that this one misses the mark even by recent standards. There’s no joke, which is OK, but there’s also no really insight either.

    Why is this guy at a party and annoyed by people talking about other people if he doesn’t want to be? He’s an adult. No one is making him go to this party if he doesn’t want to. Meanwhile, he’s clearly judging his friends via the title text, but the judgment is undercut by the fact that he made a comic for a popular website about how they all suck!

    Which isn’t to say I can’t identify with the comic at all. I remember being at a karaoke bar with a bunch of ex-pats in Japan and leaving the bar thinking they were all a bunch of shallow phonies except for me, since I knew Japanese and thought about philosophy and was in tune with the seasons or whatever… But that was a wank. I was in a funky mood and I was being judgmental of others while covering my judgmentalness over with a layer of self-satisfaction. I don’t think Randall would do well to cultivate such an attitude.

  14. Koray Says:

    I agree with Carl above. It’s simultaneously an attack on the so-called ‘cool’ people (who are portrayed as interesting as doorknobs) while trying to justify a retreat into the world of numbers (for his inability to walk out and do something better or be with people of his choice). He even dares to mock their inability to read his mind since surely only nerds get stuck in a room with people that bore the heck out of them.

    So what if people commonly labelled cool are in fact dull? Find the real cool people. Some of them are good with numbers. Some are not.

  15. komponisto Says:

    You see what’s happening here: apparently we have come so far that people are indignantly standing up on behalf of cool people. I guess that’s progress!

    Staying squarely within the realm of “nerd interest”: Scott, didn’t you mention something about having done a diavlog recently?

  16. Scott Says:

    Komponisto: Alas, it had to be scrapped due to technical problems with the recording. We’ll try again soon.

  17. Carl Says:

    You’re doing a bloggingheads? Please do your best to overcome the technical problems, because I would certainly be interested in hearing that. Who’s your interlocutor? Wil Wilkinson? Josh Knobe?

  18. Carl Says:

    Oops, I see that you mentioned it’s Eliezer Yudowski.

  19. Arne Peeters Says:

    @ Carl & Koray: You needn’t be among stupid or non-really cool people for this to happen. Parties do happen to start slowly sometimes, or people go on uninteresting tangents, or you just happen to be less interested in other people than everyone else. Even the coolest people I know talk about topics I find as interesting as doorknobs…

    But yes, those normal people in the comic do seem very stereotypical. I’d write that off as a dramatic necessity (or how you native English speakers would call it) to get the point across.

  20. Jair Says:

    I don’t know. I read the comic in a different way. Sure, the people in the comic are stereotypically gossipy and boring, but I’ve been in situations like this a million times even when the people around me are friendly and engaging. For me, small talk takes effort and sometimes I’d rather just zone out to my own private world. I can’t tell what Randall Munroe was intending exactly, but for me the comic would be just as effective regardless of what the other characters are saying. It’s not that the other people are all hopelessly shallow. It’s just the main character exists in an another world. Randall’s not chastising the entire non-geek world or trying to say that everyone should think the way he does. He’s just presenting a situation that every nerd can identify with. In fact, that’d be a pretty good definition of a nerd: someone who can identify with the character in this comic.

  21. Kevin Says:

    Scott, would you rather be Lisa Simpson or Chris Griffin?
    Just a curious question.

  22. Scott Says:

    Jair: Amen, and extremely well said!

    Kevin: I don’t even know who Chris Griffin is. But I always did identify with Lisa, to some extent.

  23. Qiaochu Yuan Says:

    I dunno, Scott. The comic comes annoyingly close to attacking everyone around the nerd for the relative shallowness of the subject of their conversation. The alt-text also lends support to the hypothesis that the comic is more about the people around the nerd than the nerd.

    I mean, it’s not as if mathematicians don’t gossip.

  24. Charlie Stromeyer Says:

    Scott, speaking of nerds, both you and I are in the “Acknowledgements” section of Giuseppe Castagnoli’s newest paper:

    http://arxiv.org/abs/0906.1811

    As you already know, Kurt Godel proved that no sufficiently fundamental theory of mathematics can be complete.

    How might one use Castagnoli’s result to show that no fundamental theory of physics can be complete because not everything can be physically pre-determined? For example, maybe by combining his result with J.H. Conway and S. Kochen’s new Strong Free Will Theorem? Thanks.

  25. Charming Says:

    Dear Scott,

    Won’t you share some of your advice, experience, wisdom, and suggestions with the CIFellows team currently in the process of selecting Computing Innovation fellows?

    http://cifellows.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=45&p=215#p215

  26. Niel Says:

    I also agree with Jair’s comments. Randall Munroue is obviously criticizing gossip with his comic: but I don’t think that this is not the aspect which Scott is identifying as the aspect of nerddom.

    What singles out the protagonist of the comic is not his distinterest in gossip per se, but how he reacts in the fourth panel, to what can only be described as a barrage of conversation which he cannot identify with. (Note that none of the speech in that panel or the fifth one are actually attributed to anyone: it’s little more than impersonal noise.) His reaction is to shift his attention to something which he can identify with.

    Some people identify with the idea of escaping like this from back-biting conversation, and some don’t. A lot of “nerds” do find this sort of conversation uncomfortable, but the fact the escape is done in this context mostly serves to distinguish the comic from others that Randall has done. (He can’t make all of his comics just about nerd-advocacy, or they would be repetitive.) The real nerd-advocacy of the comic is to depict the inner life of a technical problem-solver, and to show that it is normal for this to happen in the middle of parties.

  27. Jonathan Vos Post Says:

    These comments support my claim that the nerd/normal distinction is artificial, misguided, and damaging. Rather than us-versus-them divisions such as C. P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” or The Two-Conference Solution, I believe that we need to build bridges between individuals and groups, rather than provoke attacks.

    It is a key responsibility of research leaders, teachers, and popularizers to be pontifex. Note that this counts Dr. Scott Aaronson three times.

    The current Notices of the ACM reviews two books which provide constructive visions of how Math-philes and Math-phobes can better understand each other, and work together. “An eye for an eye leaves us all blind.”

  28. John Sidles Says:

    No-one has mentioned a sure-and-simple cure for nerd-ness: get married. Because no matter who you marry, they will get right to work fixing you. Count on it.

    If needed, you can always travel to a state where your preferred brand of marriage is legal. Viva Des Moines IA! :)

    This is highly effective in the long run (do not ask me how I know). Be aware that you may discover that your “inner nerd” has been camouflaging an inner dinosaur. :)

  29. John Sidles Says:

    By the way, I just stumbled upon a fabulous home-diagnostic test of nerdiness … Stanford on iTunes U.

    That you are thrilled to gaze upon this epoch-altering site (and have cancelled tonight’s party plans) certifies your nerdiness. The diagnostic question “What subtype of nerd are you” is answered by “What was your first download?”

  30. Charlie Stromeyer Says:

    Scott, I’m being extra nerdy this evening because I’m reading UC-Berkeley Professor Fleming’s paper below about quantum coherence in photosynthesis, and wonder if it would be possible to have quantum coherence within man-made solar cells, thus greatly improving their efficiency, e.g., even if with organic PVs (photovoltaics).

    Annual Review of Physical Chemistry
    Vol. 60: 241-262 (Volume publication date May 2009)
    (doi:10.1146/annurev.physchem.040808.090259)
    First published online as a Review in Advance on November 14, 2008

    Dynamics of Light Harvesting in Photosynthesis

    Yuan-Chung Cheng and Graham R. Fleming
    Department of Chemistry and QB3 Institute, University of California,
    Berkeley and Physical Bioscience Division, Lawrence Berkeley National
    Laboratory, Berkeley, California 94720

    We review recent theoretical and experimental advances in the
    elucidation of the dynamics of light harvesting in photosynthesis,
    focusing on recent theoretical developments in structure-based
    modeling of electronic excitations in photosynthetic complexes and
    critically examining theoretical models for excitation energy
    transfer. We then briefly describe two-dimensional electronic
    spectroscopy and its application to the study of photosynthetic
    complexes, in particular the Fenna-Matthews-Olson complex from green
    sulfur bacteria. This review emphasizes recent experimental
    observations of long-lasting quantum coherence in photosynthetic
    systems and the implications of quantum coherence in natural
    photosynthesis.

  31. John Sidles Says:

    One other nerd-related suggestion—a serious one—consider asking your local Big Brother/Big Sister/foster care agency to hook you up with a nerdy kid(s) who needs someone to relate to. You’ll grow as a person at (roughly) the same rate as the kid(s) … it’s a deal that’s good for everyone. And neither you nor the kid(s) will cease to be authentic nerds … you’ll just be happier nerds. :)

  32. Charlie Stromeyer Says:

    John, I like your suggestion of mentoring a nerd. I recently advised three different faculty members at Harvard Medical School, but perhaps they do not qualify as true nerds because none of them are very mathematically inclined?

    What is the best way to recognize a fellow true nerd?

  33. Scott Says:

    Charlie: The fact that I’m in the acknowledgments of Castagnoli’s paper doesn’t in any way imply that the paper made the slightest bit of sense to me. It merely means that I wrote back to him trying to make sense of it (unsuccessfully, as it turned out).

    The basic problem is that Castagnoli never comes out and says, clearly and mathematically, what his proposed “50% rule” consists of, or even what its claimed status is (a theorem? a conjecture? just an observed regularity?). For example, already the rule seems to mean something different for Grover than for Deutsch-Jozsa, and something different still for Simon’s and Shor’s algorithms (actually, I have no idea what it means for Shor’s period-finding algorithm). Furthermore, given any reasonable formalization of the rule that I could think of, it’s easy to come up with quantum query complexity problems for which the rule fails to hold (I’ll leave this as an exercise for the reader).

  34. Scott Says:

    Won’t you share some of your advice, experience, wisdom, and suggestions with the CIFellows team currently in the process of selecting Computing Innovation fellows?

    Sorry, asking me to do something time-consuming by submitting an off-topic blog comment is one of the best ways to ensure I won’t do it… :-)

  35. Charlie Stromeyer Says:

    Scott, my only contribution to Castagnoli’s paper was to suggest to him that the underlying reason for the speed-up of quantum computation over classical computation might have something to do with the non-sequential behavior of the wavefunction in QM which was experimentally established years earlier in this brief paper by Dolev and Elitzur that was also published in an edited book:

    http://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0102109

    Thank you for the points you make above which I will try to think about in depth. However, since I am a mathematician and not a physicist I might try this approach which possibly risks turning into merely some kind of mathematical game:

    This paper by J. Baez and M. Stay provides a self-contained introduction to the mathematics of category theory and shows that a quantum computation can be seen as an abstract morphism in a braided monoidal category:

    http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/rosetta.pdf

  36. John Armstrong Says:

    JVP if you’re going for that tone you may as well go the whole nine yards: “pontifices”

  37. Raoul Ohio Says:

    All,

    For anyone interested in elevating both their coolness and nerd/geek rating, check out the state of the art in “scientific tattoos” at:

    http://www.uniquescoop.com/2009/05/scientific-tattoos.html

    For those times when you really should be working, but feel the need to waste some time in a fashion that runs your brain at about twice idle, the uniquescoop site has many other compilations of offbeat/interesting stuff.