Hath not a nerd eyes?

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?

29 Responses to “Hath not a nerd eyes?”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    The bottom line: humans are emotional beings. Very few of them understand “proof” or “technology” or “quantum” while most understand “music” or “movies” or “fiction.” I used to think technology creates change: it does, but only when it meets “music”, “movies” etc. Otherwise, they remain in the periphery.

    Among humans, ee are the periphery. The tail end of a long tail. Marginal enough that if this were a “proof,” we would not even care to look at the distribution there… bounded by some small epsilon.

    Why should our lives be any different from our “proofs”?

  2. Anonymous Says:

    This is largely a byproduct of people’s perceptions of what constitutes physics, math, and the like. Given these perceptions, I agree with them completely. Someone who enjoys doing physics homework for 12 hours a day, or marching through a series of problems in their calculus textbook ad nauseum is probably very boring, and not, in general, socially engaging. In other words, I would gain very little from their presence in my life, and this makes them less “human.”

    Unfortunately, this is what the public (and private) school systems (high school and college, at least) seem to impress upon the students. The good students are the best conformists, and the ones who make the teachers’ lives the easiest. What we have are huge factories devoted to weeding out creativity and individualism.

    So yeah–I would be bitter about the whole process too, and extremeley suspicious of those that I perceived as wanting to continue on in such a dull, lifeless, artless pursuit.

    On the other hand, everything requires hard work, and this includes “being sociable.” You have to learn to coexist enjoyably in a society, and people who devote their lives obsessively to a singular goal (e.g. the advancement of their scientific field) tend to slack off in these other areas. In conclusion, everyone sucks. Who are you to complain?

  3. Scott Says:

    Anonymous: I completely agree about the school system. But you seem to accept a double standard when you write:

    “You have to learn to coexist enjoyably in a society, and people who devote their lives obsessively to a singular goal (e.g. the advancement of their scientific field) tend to slack off in these other areas.”

    This is true, but the point is that people who devote their lives obsessively to sports, music, fashion, and other areas are not similarly seen as “less human.” On the contrary, the famous ones are often seen as “more human.”

  4. Pyracantha Says:

    It’s even worse for a girl nerd, who is expected in pop culture to suddenly transform herself into a sexy sexy babe when she finds a “real man.” LOVVVE is always expected to win out over science with a girl nerd.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    It’s not a double standard; it’s a singular one: Everyone sucks. Educators suck because they’re fascists, “normal” people suck because they don’t know any math, and mathematicians suck because they don’t know any people.

  6. Andrei Lopatenko Says:

    Your post reminds me a wonderful esse of Paul Graham
    Why Nerds are Unpopular

  7. aram Says:

    Real genius is one of my all-time favorite movies. I think I saw it in high school, but only appreciated it once I came to MIT.

    Of course, one point of the movie is that Mitch only becomes a “real genius” once he understands the social consequences of his research.

    And in Mitch’s nerdly struggle, Laszlo represents the dark side of nerdiness: what happens when you don’t take time to play the bongo drums or think about what you would use a phase conjugate mirror for.


    But you’re right that nerds get undue attention for being single-minded. I talked to a violinist who was a Caltech undergrad (hence living in both worlds) and told me that classical musicians seemed every bit as “nerdy” as science people, since they spent most of the time practicing music alone and thinking about music.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    —the asexual nerd who babbles incomprehensibly before getting killed around scene 3 (unless of course he’s the villain)

    A few years back I spent the holidays holed-in watching some late 90’s popular Hollywood movies.

    The sample was chosen unscientifically–whatever my hosts had purchased on tape–but the trend was clear: the dead-by-scene 3 people were overwhelmingly lawyers, nerds, third world people or black.

    This included Jurassic Park, much to my surprise, given Spielberg’s involvement with documenting the Shoah.

  9. Scott Says:

    “It’s even worse for a girl nerd, who is expected in pop culture to suddenly transform herself into a sexy sexy babe when she finds a ‘real man.'”

    Strange — in my experience, the categories of “girl nerd” and “sexy sexy babe” are anything but mutually exclusive.

  10. Scott Says:

    Aram: One lesson to take from the movie is that there’s no contradiction between nerdiness and a broader moral sensibility — recall that it’s Lazlo, the “supreme nerd,” who brings the laser’s intended purpose to Chris and Mitch’s attention.

  11. Scott Says:

    Andrei: Thanks for reminding me! Why Nerds Are Unpopular is a masterpiece; it deserves its own post sometime.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    That Paul Graham essay is good. It brings up an important point that someone else mentioned… being popular is hard work. My roommate, a beautiful 20-year-old girl, spends some serious time on herself and interacting with others. Why is it that I’m labeled a less-human for spend hours alone trying to prove something, while it’s actually “good” for her to spend well over an hour to get ready every morning? Not to mention time at the gym, time spent shopping for clothes, etc.

    I think our society emphasizes the wrong things. I don’t think we should emphasize proving theorems, that’s not for everyone, but perhaps we could value actions that are beneficial to society as a whole.

    Of course… maybe girls looking good does benefit 1/2 the members of society…


  13. Anonymous Says:

    None of the scientists whom I know are boring or asocial. Some are shy or naturally quiet or arrogant or stupid or jerks, same as the rest of the world.

    Fact is, movie children do not behave like real children, movie lawyers have little in common with real lawyers, movie policemen are completely different from real policemen and no real gladiator has ever had any remote resemblance with movie gladiators, so why would we expect movie scientists to have anything to do with real scientists? Most mainstream movies tell the same story again and again, set in an arbitrary art direction. Name, costumes, professions, locations are merely devices. Who really cares if the good guy is a nerd and the bad guy a gladiator or the other round? Same nonsense anyway.

    Another problem, I guess, is that there are inherently few earnest, compelling stories to be told about scientists, that would not work just as well on gladiators. But there are and undoubtedly there will be good movies inspired by science in content and style. Fiction and drama are already there, cinema lags behind only because of identity issues (art vs entertainment).

    And Aram is right. Musicians are exactly as ‘boring’, as scientists are; so are writers, actors, painters, dancers and so on. Even socialites, as Andy wrote. Consequently or not, they are all subjected to stereotypes, and so are people from different races and blogers. Feynman’s reply would have been correct for any other group, even if instead of humanity they had to prove intelligence or other sort of ‘normality’.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    On the other hand, with whom is the viewer supposed to relate more: boring Mitch (who doesn’t really “come into his own” until he gets the girl at the end) or Chris (the “cool” smart kid)?

    PS: Real Genius is one of my all-time favorite movies as well ( and Val Kilmer became my hero after that movie…), but I related to Chris (well, I was more like Mitch but wanted to be more like Chris…). My point is just that I don’t think the movie is a great example of providing a positive perspective on the “traditional nerdy” type.

  15. Miss HT Psych Says:

    “The bottom line: humans are emotional beings.”

    This isn’t necessarily true. Humans most often characterize ourselves as possessing rational thought and free will. Animals of all sorts experience emotion, so I don’t think of this as something whch primarily defines us (although I won’t disagree that it’s integral to the human experience). So, if a human is a being that possesses the ability to reason, academics of any sort would be prime examples. They have no reason to ever have their “humanity” questioned in this way.

    “It’s even worse for a girl nerd, who is expected in pop culture to suddenly transform herself into a sexy sexy babe when she finds a ‘real man.'” Hmmm… speaking as a girl nerd, I really don’t find this to be true. I think people have a hard time reconciling sexy, extroverted girls with academia (most people are continually surprised that I used to be in a gifted program). I think they are mutually exclusive, but I’ve never found any expectation to transform oneself. I usually hear quite the opposite: the spinster idea.

    The asexual, antisocial nerd. Interesting. As much as I rebel against this idea of being true, I just recently reviewed an article on my blog that shows this very trend. Gifted men who are sociable tend to leave their intellectual pursuits behind and look for other means of making a living. The antisocial ones tended to have more productive, academic-related, successful careers. I’d love to see a study which shows the reverse trend (seriously). I can’t be the only extroverted nerd out there! 🙂

  16. Dave Bacon Says:

    Aram said “Real genius is one of my all-time favorite movies. I think I saw it in high school, but only appreciated it once I came to MIT”

    Scott said “the most unabashed celebration of nerdiness I’ve seen in cinema is a little-known 80’s comedy called Real Genius.”

    Why neither of you ended up going to Caltech is totally beyond me. Because you know, “Real Genius”, was based on Caltech. I’ve always thought that the admissions at Caltech should just show that movie at their recruiting sessions and not any of this “blah blah we have 32 Nobel prize winners” junk.

    I keep hoping to use this Real Genius joke in a talk sometime:
    Mitch: “This is coherent light.”
    Mitch’s dad: “Oh, so it talks.”

  17. Christine Says:

    Are you sure I introduced the movie to you? I always remember it as you introducing it to me…
    In any case, based on more recent trends, I am actually optimistic about the future place of “nerds” in society. To be a nerd in school growing up now is not the same as it was when I was growing up. One of my students from Clarkstown South (where I was a math and computer science teacher last year) had a t-shirt that read in bold letters, “Nerds are HOT,” and she meant it! In a similar way to how the jocks were “special” and set apart from the general population, so were the nerds. Even if a student wasn’t friends with the nerds directly, s/he still had a certain detached respect for them (so in a way people preferred to be nerds than jocks, or at least wanted to be nerdy jocks, because not everyone respected the jocks). Of course, there is a wide range of “nerdiness” among the nerds, but at South HS, it seemed that even the “nerdiest” of the nerds had all their nerdy friends backing them up, so no was left out. Not to mention on a larger scale how the nerdy look, being skinny, wearing thick glasses, unkempt hair, awkward sweater-vests or other fashion faux pas are trendy now (watch any alternative rock video on MTV)! There are also a lot more nerds that we all cheer for in main stream media (e.g. Rory and her friend Lane in the show Gilmore Girls, Milo Hoffman and his friends in the movie Antitrust, etc, etc). I really think people want to look smart, that it’s cool to seem like you know a lot of deep, complicated, esoteric things. Just as there are the “wannabe” cool kids or jocks, people want to be nerds even if they don’t quite fit the bill! The traditional “cool kid” is not perceived as being so cool anymore, and being obsessed with books or learning is much cooler than it used to be.

  18. Miss HT Psych Says:

    Just read the article “Why Nerds Are Unpopular.” I have a bit of a problem with it. I’m sure it holds for “normal” school classes. But I was in a gifted class (we were bused in to a special school and we were in total “gifted” immersion). In this classroom setting we, obviously, had our own social hierarchy. AND it had nothing to do with how “smart” you were (smart in this sense refers to two things: potential measured on the tests we took and actual performance in school… not as related as you might think). Nor did it correlate with your participation in sports. I’m sure looks and charisma played a role. It seemed that our social hierarchy was mostly based on visciousness. The generally nice people tended to be unpopular. So the article explains why smart kids in normal classes are unpopular, but what about the social hierarchy within the nerds? It does nothing for that…

  19. Anonymous Says:

    I think this is unfair. You are comparing scientists to the best jobs most people can imagine, and saying we come out behind. No kidding. No profession can hope to compare favorably with professional football players or musicians. But how many insurance adjusters does Hollywood portray favorably, for example, or at all? I think it is pretty good that science comes in at third place (well, behind artists of any kind, spies too of course, and I’m not sure about doctors and lawyers..).

    The reason Hollywood movies have so many dead scientists is that they want need science for the plot, but they just don’t need the scientists. I don’t think this is because scientists are seen as “less human” than artists. Only not every movie with technology in it needs a starring scientist, so they get rid of them fast.

    What about say Ross from the Friends TV show? He’s a scientist whose job doesn’t define him any more than the other characters’ jobs, AFAIK.

  20. Scott Says:

    Christine: No, you introduced me to the movie, at a party at your apartment. I remember it well.

    As for nerdiness being cool, what can I say? There should be more people in the world like you.

  21. Scott Says:

    Anonymous: Sorry, I’ve never watched Friends.

    I was using athletes and musicians mainly as archetypes — for example, even an insurance adjuster who played football in high school would be seen as more “normal” than a mathematician. (Incidentally, are there mathematicians who played football in high school? 🙂 )

  22. Daniel Says:

    I think Watson’s wonderful book Double Helix shows really well how cool science is. If you read this book, and don’t want to be a scientist, then there are serious problems with you.

  23. Anonymous Says:

    You see, how we can we be expected to relate to you if you haven’t ever seen Friends?

  24. Scott Says:

    Anonymous: For TV, I prefer Simpsons, Futurama, South Park, Ali G, and Jon Stewart (notice a common theme?)

  25. Scott Says:

    Daniel: Have you read Watson’s sequel, “Genes, Girls, and Gamow: After the Double Helix”? If you read that book and *want* to be a scientist there are also serious problems with you 😉

  26. Anonymous Says:

    1. I think that the intersection of the set of football players and the set of mathematicians is the empty set. No, I don’t have a proof. This is merely a conjecture. 😉

    2. Double Helix makes Watson look like an ass. First he only dates a girl to brown nose with her father, makes derogatory comments about Roslin’s appearance and makes derogatory comments about his colleague Crick’s appearance (yes there are notes in the appendix that claim that Crick was not really insulted by Watson’s comments). Yeah, it’s cool how he comes up with the structure of DNA by playing around with combinations of the sugar molecules but still all of his shenanigans make me think he’s not someone that you would want to look up to or emulate.

  27. aram Says:

    I meant to say that I saw it in HS, but completely didn’t appreciate it. So it wasn’t at all a factor in picking my college, and I was even nervous about the nerdiness level of MIT, but getting rejected by Harvard made my decision simpler.

    (As a sign that I’ve changed, see this recent post.)

    But! One of my best friends in college did come to MIT in large part because of how much he loved Real Genius. And felt profoundly sheepish freshman year when he learned which school it was actually based on.

  28. Cheshire Cat Says:

    I think football (as opposed to soccer) is an asinine game and hold it in the most withering contempt, however the nerd in me is compelled to point out that the last Anonymous’ conjecture is false. Frank Ryan, Cleveland quarterback in the 60s, had a PhD in math from Rice…

  29. Niel Says:

    For the record:

    I’m at least an approximation to a mathematician, and I was a defensive tackle in grade 10. I was a little bitter about not being accepted for offense, because offence was always much more fun. Why block when you can run?

    They asked me back for grade 12 due to my performance in track events, but I turned them down because I was still bitter about the first time. It’s probably for the best, because I was never much of a team-player satisfied with running in carefully set formations — I wanted to shine on my own merits, as I could in running events.