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It’s All Geek To Me

Posted on 27th October 2010. One Comment

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Ben Whittle examines what it means to be a Science Enthusiast (or ‘Geek’).

Standing proudly in attractive South Kensington, between the Natural History Museum and Imperial College, is the Science Museum, a building which has long been one of my favourite places to visit in London, ever since I was a child, and it was where I spent several happy hours last Monday. I realise that statement will raise some amused eyebrows and places me in a select group which some people would call ‘science-enthusiasts’, but which most others would more bluntly call ‘geeks’. This latter group is actually wrong as the term ‘geek’ is primarily defined as a person obsessed with computing (which I am not, despite using dictionary.com to find that definition) but I understand the point they’re trying to make: liking science is un-cool and going to a museum dedicated to it, when you are not forced to, is not going to win you any friends.

I myself do not wear glasses, my acne was never that severe and I stay out of the sun merely because sometimes it is simply too bright.

Why the sciences have earned this undesirable reputation over other subjects such as geography or English, about which people can become equally fanatical, is something of a mystery to me. Probably a large part comes from the, admittedly occasionally accurate, stereotype of scientists as pale, bespectacled creatures with severe acne, nasal voices and high pitched laughs who stay indoors for fear of sunburn, hay-fever and ridicule. This is hugely unfair in most cases; I myself do not wear glasses, my acne was never that severe and I stay out of the sun merely because sometimes it is simply too bright. But very few other subjects seem to have this problem combating inaccurate conventions – historians, for example, have even come into fashion recently and are almost thought of as cool, almost certainly helped by the popularity of books like The Da Vinci Code. So why are the sciences seen as being so inaccessible, the realm of only the intellectual elite (or nerds)?

Say “deoxyribonucleic acid” or “Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle” out loud and most people listening will have tuned out by the second syllable

One of the problems is that science is all around us but, in order to discuss its ideas accurately, it uses hugely complex language. Say “deoxyribonucleic acid” or “Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle” out loud and most people listening will have tuned out by the second syllable, while the ones who are still paying attention are preparing to question you in nasal voices. This is not to say that other subjects do not use technical language – why not ask an architect to describe post-modernist deconstructivism? – but nothing seems to rival the sciences for jargon.

The media has almost certainly been a key player in establishing this position of unintelligibility. Science is often at the forefront of journalism and advertising, whether it’s a supposedly dangerous medicine or a new anti-wrinkle cream, so scientific, or pseudo-scientific, language is regularly used. However, rather than explain this technical jargon it is often used as a shield to deflect any criticism and reinforce whichever point is being made: “the medicine is made of deadlyunknownchemicalcomplex-3 so it must be dangerous”, or “this cream contains superduperultranewturnbacktheclock-ium so it must be good”. The implication is that it’s science and it’s confusing so don’t even bother trying to understand it. Anyone who does understand it must be weird – must be a geek.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe that’s not how science has achieved its unenviable notoriety at all and it is because all scientists are as socially awkward and sad as the stereotype describes. I am certain that there are other reasons for the ‘geekiness of science’ but surely my argument accounts for at least some of the problem.

Is there a Waterstones in the country which doesn’t have a proudly titled ‘Popular Science’ section?

Then again, perhaps I am completely wrong – perhaps science isn’t as disliked as I’ve claimed it is. Television series like Doctor Who and films such as Zombieland have made geek-chic a fashionable look; Professor Brian Cox is constantly on primetime BBC exploring everything from the Large Hadron Collider to the atmosphere on the Saturnian moon, Titan; and is there a Waterstones in the country which doesn’t have a proudly titled ‘Popular Science’ section? If these examples are anything to go by then science could be moving from being nerdy to being attractive. And if that’s true then surely a trip to the Science Museum is as cool as going to Glastonbury!

Well, maybe not, but it’s definitely worth a visit next time you’re in London. It is still free, after all.

http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/

One Comment »

  • Wereon said:

    I was quite unimpressed with the Science Museum when I went for the first time a few months ago. The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester is miles better.