Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nerd Nation

The jocks have been shoved aside.  While the Super Bowl has not withered from disinterest,  the fact remains that a significant (if unmeasured) population of  America know themselves to be geeks or nerds --  and are proud of it. 
Big Bang Theory:
Wolowicz, Leonard, Penny, Sheldon and Raj
 I  point to mainstream television programs such as CSI, NCIS, Big Bang Theory, NUMB3RS, and Psych, as well as to the foundation media such as NPR's "Science Friday" (1.3 million listeners), and the long established commercial success of the Discovery Channel and the recently rebranded Syfy ("SciFi") Channel.   It is not just that Big Bang Theory is a prime time television comedy about physicists.  To that must be added Big Blog Theory, the website that offers real physics in support of the comedy.  This is in the instant tradition of the Wolfram Mathematica pages to supplement NUMB3RS when it was on the air, 2005-2010.  On an NCIS episode, laboratory technician Abby Sciuto is waxing on about Bill Nye, the Science Guy.  Her boss, former Marine sniper Jethro Gibbs, does not get the reference.  She goes on.  "Oh," he says, "Just like Mr. Wizard."  She replies with a question mark. 

When Hugo Gernsback launched his science fiction magazines, he intended that they be for everyone.  Still, he insisted that his writers pad their stories with expositions from textbooks, to ensure that the science (however fanciful) was credible.  When John W. Campbell took over, he identified his audience specifically as educated in science, and he courted writers such as Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov because of their education. 

At least one good reason to take any science class.
 Fully 28% of Americans claim to have four-year degrees.  In a funny way, the show NUMB3RS reflects that.  While David Krumholtz learned his lines well, his supporting actress, Navi Rawat (Dr. Amita Ramanujan) says that she surfed the web to read popular math to help her delivery.  Beyond that, co-star Judd Hirsch actually majored in physics.  Even closer to the limit, supporting actor Dylan Bruno (Agent Colby Granger) has a bachelor's from MIT in environmental engineering.  Pauley Perrette (Abbey Sciuto of NCIS)'s degree in sociology exposed her to the related study of criminology.

Cellphones and computers have morphed into smartphones and pads.  Clearly, comedy and drama consonant with our culture must reflect that.

Also reflected in that broader culture, is the "CSI Effect" in real courtrooms.  At first, it was a complaint from prosecutors.  Lacking physical evidence, some found it hard to win a conviction.  Or so they claimed.  The problem interested criminologist Gregg Barak of Eastern Michigan University who specializes in the mass media affects on our perceptions of crime.  He enlisted his colleagues Young Kim and Donald Shelton.  They found, broadly, that in fact, the "CSI Effect" is really just a "tech effect."  We expect scientifically valid physical evidence because we live in a technological culture.  Beyond that, however, their numbers showed that jurors with less education demand more evidence.  Jurors with more education tend to take the prosecution's word for it.  Whether this correlates to time spent watching television, or solidarity within social classes is a different question. 

Also on Necessary Facts
Nerd Nation 2.0 (Danika McKellar, Felicia Day, and Natalie Portman)
Nerd Nation 3.0 (Dungeons and Dragons) 
Nerd Nation 4.0 (Gentleman's Quarterly)
Nerd Nation 4.5 (Mayim Bialik)
Where All the Children are Above Average

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