Has physics become cool again?

It's Friday, it's pouring with rain, and time for a grumpy post.

The BBC is running a story Has physics become cool again?. While the overall story is good news, that the number of people people doing A-Level physics in the UK is on the way up, it also high-lights what I see as a big problem, basically the media's portrayal of physicists.

Words like "nerd" and "geek" to generically describe scientists makes my blood boil, as does their portrayal as socially inadequate, Star Trek obsessed, comic-book reading dweebs. Case in point:

Apparently "smart is the new sexy".

And our own Beauty and the Geek had this  bunch
Not to mention Nerds FC. In fact, each year we get an email circulating around our physics department that Beauty and the Geek are looking for new contestants, but from physics they are only looking for geeks, not beauties.

Harmless fun you may say. But is it? We moan about falling numbers in science, and in physics, the number of women in science is a continual source of concern. We know that the teaching of science in school can be problematic, being too boring or too much work, but what message does the above send to kids?

(Pop psych warning) My feeling is that they say that to be a scientist, you must wear the geek/nerd badge. That you must be "uncool". No wonder young people would rather be lawyers or accountants (are there Big Bang Theory equivalents of these?). The portrayal of women in Beauty and the Geek is not particularly flattering either.

The BBC article continues with some mixed messages, with the "Cox Effect" (who can coolly stare from a mountain top in some remote location while make a deep comment about the Universe) inspiring a new generation of physicists. But there is also there is a comment from the excellent Professor Jim Al-Khalili (he of the fantastic Atom tv-series) apparently stating
"The geeks are on the march again!”
 A quick read of Al-Khalili's wikipedia page points out that he
"has been a supporter of Leeds United football club ever since the Revie days of the early seventies"
a football tragic and very un-geeky passtime. I wonder if he means other people are geeks?

In truth, physicists are people who do physics. A look at the lives of physicists reveals the same angsts, woes, joy and excitement as most other people. It doesn't take a lot of detective work to find out the very human activities of Schrodinger and Feynman (or even Einstein for that matter), as well as the tragedies in the lives of Boltzmann, Curie and Ehrenfest. They were people, doing physicsy things, but living peopley lives.

I'm not saying that there are not some nerdy and geeky people in science - there are. But there are nerdy and geeky people in all professions and walks of society, and there are very non-geeky and non-nerdy people in science (such as Cox and Al-Khalili). So, here's the new slogan:
and let's have a few more positive portrayals of physics in the media, doing the kind of things that we do best (like calculating the influence of evolving dark energy on the recent expansion history of the Universe), while hosting cool and sophisticated cocktail parties (well, perhaps at least a fun BBQ and a game of triv). Maybe this will have a positive influence on young people considering a career in science?

I'll finish on a footnote; in a couple of weeks, I will be attending Speed Meet a Geek in the city. When invited to participate, I said I was not interested due to the geek label (which, apparently, is a term of endearment rather than derision), and now my invite says I will be at Speed Meet a Scientist. However, it's still being advertised as Speed Meet a Geek to the kids; Sigh, I'll be sure to wear my polyester trousers, brush up on my Star Trek trivia, and bring some Spiderman comics along......


  1. A long time ago, when I was a wee lad, I watched reruns of the television series Gilligan's Island: Gilligan, the Skipper too, the millionaire, and his wife, the movie star, the Professor and Mary Ann. Interestingly, the Professor (supposedly modeled on Feynman) was the only realistic character. OK, there was some license made for it being a comedy, but he was much more realistic than the other figures, who were really just types.

    Most scientists of course don't correspond to the geeky stereotype. Most are just more or less normal folk, but there are a few real characters such as Einstein, Feynman, Carl Sagan (his description of taking a shower with his wife while high on pot is a classic), Tycho Brahe etc.


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