The nutty professor's nemesis

An Oxford biochemist and a Harvard mathematician are trying to dump the nutty or nerdy professor stereotype by setting up Hollywood Math and Science Film Consulting.

The scientists in Back to the Future and Honey I Shrunk the Kids were potty or clumsy nerds. In ET they were heartless monsters who wanted to dissect a cute alien, and in the Terminator films they helped develop smart robots that would run amok.

“It’s annoying how many films will include a ‘mad’ scientist,” (Lizzie Burns) said. “The portrayal of scientists can be so negative and the science wrong. I’m interested in trying to get the science right and make scientists in films a bit more real.”

Burns and colleague Jonathan Farley have consulted on the TV show Numb3rs, “in which an FBI agent recruits his mathematical genius brother to help solve crimes.” They make sure the math adds up.

Scientists used to be widowers with Einsteinian hair, foreign accents and beautiful blonde daughters who served as lab assistants.

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Comments

  1. In other words, Lizzie Burns wants Hollywood to make clean-cut fratboy jock scientists who get the small town mayor’s 17-year-old daughter pregnant. They want scientists who are more like jocks such as O.J. Simpson – or politicians such as George Bush or Bill Clinton. Real super-duper-normal role models we have here!

    No thank you, I’ll stick to potty and clumsy nerds instead, such as Newton, Einstein, and Hawking.

    Beeman, proudly autistic and schizophrenic

  2. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Just don’t use Ehrlich or Sagan as models.

  3. hardlyb says:

    I certainly don’t recognize any scientists I know in the movies. I preferred the stereotypes in the 50’s sci-fi movies, or even the earlier serials with Commando Cody and the other two-fisted techno-weenies. (And, as one of the robots on MST3000 asked, is “Commando” a rank or an honorary title?) These older stereotypes were certainly inaccurate, but they were actually slightly closer to reality than what we mostly see these days.

  4. P. Abel says:

    I appaud their efforts to make mathematicians & scientists more accessible. In NUMB3RS, while the cute math genius is off helping his equally handsome brother solve cases, he (and the show) rely quite a bit on the ever-so-nerdy physics professor with self-acknowledged relationship issues.

    Truthfully I love the show, but then I’m a self-described engineer/scientist geek turned HS math teacher 🙂

    BTW: I give extra-credit points to students who watch it & bring me in a paragragh discussing the applied mathematics in each episode. So far, the students AND their parents have had nothing but praise for a show they find makes math and physics more understandable. And isn’t that what we want dialogue about mathematics to be – accessible to the many not just the nerdy few?

    And while we are on stereotypes… Feynman tried to make physics accessible to those he could, and that’s a wonderful thing.

    A cautionary note: I’m wary of those in the fields of math/science who belabor the point of being nerdy. Maybe we get too comfortable in being the few, we forget math & science applies to the many. I say accept it if we are, but let’s not wrap ourselves in the exclusionary comfortableness of it. Math is beautiful & to get that word out maybe we could be a bit hipper :)After all, we ARE fun folks 🙂

  5. If I remember correctly, Nobel Laureate physicist Sheldon Glashow [electroweak theory] appears in the opening scene of The French Connection.

    That movie and Glashow are both bitchin’.

  6. BadaBing says:

    “Bitchin'”? Matthew, you are showing your age. Now, what’s bitchin’ are them 50’s and early 60’s stereotypes of scientists that try to solve dilemmae such as that of giant ants holed up in the LA River or giant tarantulae wandering the Mojave Desert. And those loveable old brainiacs always had a hot-looking, over-sexed (or maybe that’s just my imagination) daughter that hooked up with the hero in the denouement. Now that’s what I call bitchin’ entertainment.

  7. P. Abel says:

    Read http://www.aaas.org/spp/yearbook/chap24.htm
    ******
    Kudos to Hollywood Math and Science Film Consulting for doing their part.

    The CSI franchise has done well by making forensic science hip. Look at the numbers of folks applying & the new degree programs since CSI hit the airwaves. Now if NUMB3RS can make mathematics & physics interesting and cool to folks, we’ll be all the better. I agree with McGowan’s premise, we need help educating people on science (and mathematics).

    From his paper:
    We must treat education as a holistic enterprise, looking for the connections, rather than the differences, between disciplines, and looking to educate the whole person, not just a piece.

    Amen 🙂

  8. Leave it to a capitalist to make technical accuracy in the movies a paying proposition. Too bad there’s no down-side to technical inaccuracy though.

  9. I’m wary of those in the fields of math/science who belabor the point of being nerdy. Maybe we get too comfortable in being the few, we forget math & science applies to the many.

    I think it’s the masses that do most of the forgetting, and who show insufficient gratitude.

    I say accept it if we are, but let’s not wrap ourselves in the exclusionary comfortableness of it. Math is beautiful & to get that word out maybe we could be a bit hipper

    No. Let the “hip” people be “hip”, the ones neuro-genetically wired for “hipness”. Or hire some “hip” ambassadors.

    After all, we ARE fun folks

    We are fun because we are nerdy. Please accept us for that, and accept our interests. We are productive people who love our work, who could otherwise have been parasitic bums. After all, being a bum is quite socially acceptable.

    I don’t want to force on anyone any particular lifestyle. Live and let live, I say. You don’t have to like us, much less live like us, but at least come to an understanding!

    If anything, it’s the nerds, geeks, hackers, scientists, engineers, professors, etc. who end up on the receiving end of lifestyle fascism. We are the ones pressured to conform, to adjust, and become well-rounded “for our own good”, often from a very early age. No other lifestyle (except gays) has to put up with the same hypocritical persecution!

  10. Too bad there’s no down-side to technical inaccuracy though.

    There is, in the real world. When building a bridge or airplane, or in heart surgery, technical inaccuracy = death. But Hollywood, like religion, has its own fantasy-based rules.

  11. P. Abel says:

    Beeman: I think it’s the masses that do most of the forgetting, and who show insufficient gratitude.

    Insufficient gratitude? Geez, with that kind of thinking no wonder can’t fill engineering schools with domestic applicants. I can’t even imagine how you mean that, care to explain?

  12. Beeman wrote:

    I think it’s the masses that do most of the forgetting, and who show insufficient gratitude.

    How right you are. Trouble is, there isn’t anyone, including you, who aren’t part of the masses the crucial, differentiating characteristics not withstanding.

  13. Allen & P.Abel:

    So much of our modern hi-tech world was created by scientists and engineers. Processed foods, vaccines, automobiles, modern highways, the information highway, synthetic clothes, antibiotics, surgery … I can go on and on in my essential gratitude. That is what I mean. I only hope that I am grateful enough.

    I’m not asking for huge gold statues of Nobel prize winners in every city. I’m not asking for public holidays named after scientists to replace those named after politicians – or to use government force to close down sports stadiums and convert them into public libraries and stem-cell research clinics.

    Maybe I was too quick to label a handful of anti-science demagogues as “the masses”. And if people want to waste their lives with religious, political, and “social” superstition, fine. Just don’t burn my books.

  14. Beeman wrote:

    So much of our modern hi-tech world was created by scientists and engineers.

    Yes and no.

    If you look back at the history of the computer one of the things that’ll strike you is how important non-technical considerations were.

    Univac had a huge headstart on everyone else and blew it. Burroughs was selling computers in the late 50’s the likes of which IBM wouldn’t sell until ten or more years later. DEC came out of nowhere to pioneer an area of the technology disregarded by the mainframe makers, got huge, and now they’re gone.

    Yeah, scientists and engineers create the technical, the seed, but the manufacturing guys have to build the stuff and the cost accountants have to make sure it can be built cheap enough for customers to afford to buy and tech writers have to write manuals and ad copy writers have to let the world know the product exists and, saints preserve us, the sales force has to persuade reluctant or uncertain customers to sign the purchase order so the cash can go to pay the scientists and engineers.

    It’s all important and a failure anywhere along the chain means the best efforts of the scientists and engineers may as well have never been exerted.

    And if people want to waste their lives with religious, political, and “social” superstition, fine.

    Don’t be so quick to judge. Remember, a good deal of the reason you don’t have to worry too much about your books being burned is precisely because of some of those religious, political and “social” superstitions.

    The Bill of Rights didn’t wash up on a beach. It was put together by people who understood both the value of religious and political power as well as their dangers. They also knew you couldn’t wish those dangers away any more then you could wish away the danger of fire while trying to make use of it.

    You have to put the proper precautions in place when dealing with dangerous things like fire and religion and that’s what the engineers of the Constitution did. But they were, almost to a man, religious to a degree not commonly seen today. So the guys who set in place the government that protects you from the power-grabbing religious zealot were themselves very religious.

    Besides, the battleground of this issue is the prectical politics arena. Getting your guy elected, giving an undecided incumbent something to think about, writing letters to the editor, and all the rest of the piddly little details that go to deciding a political issue.

    That’s what you ought to be worried about because if the IDers are doing those mundane things and the anti-IDers aren’t then, by the rules of the political game, the IDers ought to win and it’ll only be good luck if they don’t.

  15. Ionfairy says:

    I get tired of the stereotypes too, being
    single, female, chemist. What annoys me
    the most are ignorant people who make
    assumptions based on something that they
    might have heard somewhere, like when they
    comment on my being left-handed or they
    expect me to exhibit emotional problems.

    sigh…

    Let’s not forget the cool Goth girl Abby
    on NCIS!

  16. Steve LaBonne says:

    “So the guys who set in place the government that protects you from the power-grabbing religious zealot were themselves very religious.” Yeah, right, except for a few of the less prominent ones, such as, er, Washington, Jefferson and Franklin (the latter two so openly at odds with established religion that they were routinely accused of atheism by their enemies.)

    Where do you get such stuff?

  17. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Ask a chemist what the difference is between them and a chemical engineer. Then ask a chemical engineer the same question.
    Pay no attention to what either of them says about mechanical and electrical engineers.

  18. Ionfairy says:

    WEW: I don’t know what responses you expect
    from chemists vs. chemical engineers, as if
    they were enemies, but your response shows
    a desire to perpetuate yet more stereotypes.

  19. Richard Brandshaft says:

    The next to last time I watched CSI was when the chief stood on a roof and solemnly intoned something like, “Terminal velocity is 9.8 meters per second squared.”

    The last time (I was in a hotel room and didn’t feel like reading) a bear was wounded with a rifle and finished off with a .357 Magnum revolver. They described a complex interaction between the rifle bullet and the bear’s skull that might actually have happened. I was pleasantly surprised. Then they showed a through-the-microscope shot of the .357 bullet. It was a round nosed lead bullet.

    In the season finale of Numb3rs, the math genius described the complex series of events that led to a traffic accident. Instead of concluding that no one could have planned that, he concluded that it was all too much for coincidence, and must have been planned.

    But on the other hand: the science fiction writers of the 1940s and 1950s got almost everything about early space travel wrong. But the people who read that stuff grew up and put a men on the moon.

  20. Steve LaBonne wrote:

    Yeah, right, except for a few of the less prominent ones, such as, er,

    “Except” being the key word here.

    Where do you get such stuff?

    Since I don’t feel like guessing, you want to turn on a light?

    Are you suggesting that religion didn’t play an important part in the formation of the nation and development of the Constitution? Or is your contemptousness aimed at religion in general?

  21. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Ionfairy, I was commenting on an observed reality. Your reaction was just the touchy-feely mush that I expected from a girl.

  22. Steve LaBonne says:

    Allen, I’m simply saying exactly what I wrote- your contention that the Founding Fathers were particularly religious by today’s standards is demonstrably false. Many of them were typical 18th-century Deists who believed in the “Nature’s God” of Jefferson’s phrase in the Declaration of Independence, but not in Christian dogma. And the religious influence on the Founding was indeed important, but it was more a Deist than a specifically Christian influence. The Revolutionary period actually took place during something of a trough in American religiosity, between the original Great Awakening and the “Second Great Awakening” of the early 19th Century.

  23. Steve LaBonne wrote:

    And the religious influence on the Founding was indeed important, but it was more a Deist than a specifically Christian influence.

    In the context of the time, how much of a difference was that?

  24. Steve LaBonne says:

    As big as the difference between conservative evangelicals and Unitarian Universalists today. A yawning gulf, in other words.