Monthly Archives: July 2013

Nerds – We All Are Really

Nerds and being “uncool”. Pairings such as this seem perfectly natural, like bread and butter, gin and tonic, and the internet and complete security of my information* but as ever, this stereotype is lazy, out of date, and does no justice to those casually dismissed as a result. I am reliably informed by a certain web-based encyclopaedia that the word “nerd” had its origins on the streets of Detroit as a synonym for square in the 1950s, setting it up as a denouncement of anyone who didn’t fit comfortably into a social group in their own right. 

And somehow along the way, many more defining characteristics were incorporated into the nerd archetype, including a passion for science and technology, a lack of confidence when it came to the emotional omnishambles that is Finding A Partner, and an infatuation with the fantastical, be it futuristic worlds or a fictional universe of elves and warlocks. Even ignoring the number of childhoods made miserable by the social exclusion that came with being a nerd, that this stereotype still exists is a terrible shame. The point is missed, by a country mile that, on some level, we’re all nerds.

Worth writing off online RPG World of Warcraft’s 8 million subscribers?

Take the tired cliché that someone must be “uncool” to be fascinated by science; that being able to, say, derive Einstein’s field equations of general relativity is necessarily paired with an introverted personality; this is simply not the case. From the six million people following the I Fucking Love Science page on Facebook, to the worldwide reportage of the Higgs Boson discovery at CERN last year, scientific literacy and enthusiasm is increasing all the time. People have never been more excited about progressions in science and technology, with new medical techniques that could save lives at a fraction of the cost or astounding plans to colonise other planets consistently being big news stories. The only thing that an interest in science indicates is a curiosity about why things work the way they do in the world around us, which can hardly be described as a negative quality. As for the mild trauma associated with working out whether someone likes you enough to do the whole “sex” thing, anyone arguing that this is only a problem for nerds is either a cretin or taking the piss.

Another much-generalised area of life that tends to go hand in hand with the nerd stereotype is the science-fiction and fantasy genre. Even the briefest glances at box office profits and TV viewings will confirm that this it is nothing if not mainstream; of the ten top grossing films worldwide, seven come under the sci-fi/fantasy banner. And if you haven’t heard someone in your social circles discussing that episode in Game of Thrones, then its because you’re probably still reeling from the shock after watching it and haven’t managed to leave your room yet.

As soon as you finish your first Discworld novel, or sit through 2001: A Space Odyssey you begin to realise how these works are about so much more than space ships and special effects; more often than not, you’ll find an entire philosophy neatly packaged within. The consequences of the increasing rate of technological progression; the moral ambiguities that arise if artificial intelligence is realised; the politics of a world where drugs are vital to the running of the entire economy – these can all be found within the sci-fi and fantasy genre because it allows a complete removal from our normal experience. It allows the “what if?” questions to be asked, answered and conveyed through an easily-accessible medium . These departures into sci-fi often don’t qualify as fully-fledged philosophical thought-experiments, but they tend to take on very deep themes and can be much more insightful than they are given credit for. Any post-apocalyptic landscape presented is an exploration of various routes humanity could take if it all but wiped itself out, while nightmarish police states question the ultimate end-point of modern politics. Too much is lost in the assumption that graphic novels or Comic-Con are solely for puerile adults unwilling to commit to “real life”, rather than understanding that the passions often come from a connection with material that has moved someone emotionally.

Comic-Con draws the crowds in San Diego in 2012

Regardless, whether you decide to write people – or a group of people – off because they’re a bit too much like someone out of the The Big Bang Theory†, or they seem a bit too interested in an obscure collection of Lego Star Wars figurines, you’re getting something fundamentally wrong and, more importantly, you’re missing out.

*Got to work hard to keep the NSA happy these days.

†The author neither condones nor finds funny said television program, and the reference was made purely to illustrate a point.

Adventuring in Switzerland

Let me begin this blog with a list of some things which it is not:

  • It is not a description of my infatuation with science-fiction and how this links to my interest in science itself.
  • It is not a defence of sci-fi or an attempt to blow away the stale stereotypes that are wheeled out when the limelight is thrust upon it.
  • It is not a slightly distracted amble into feminist territory as I get carried away with myself and how far-reaching my generalisations go.

I had planned to ramble on about these topics (with an appropriate amount of witty anecdotes), but I somehow found myself taking an impromptu trip to Switzerland this weekend and haven’t yet been able to give the subjects the time they deserve.

However, feeling that I needed to cling to some sort of scientific credibility, I did manage to visit the European Organisation for Nuclear research, better known as CERN. Tours around its 27 km-long particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, were fully booked for months in advance but there were two free, permanent exhibitions on show that did credit to the institution’s ability to communicate very abstract topics in an entertaining manner.

The Universe of Particles and CERN showing off its piping

The Universe of Particles and CERN showing off its piping

The Universe of Particles was first: housed in an appropriately futuristic sphere, my first impression was both one of wonder and a sense of “Fear and Loathing”-style trippyness. A darkened room with only neon globes to light the way, it quickly excited my inner child and I found myself running from sphere to sphere to see what they had to offer. Each one displayed facts¹ about the organisation, explaining a little about the different areas that were investigated in Geneva. A few had cushions inside that you could curl up in and listen someone explaining the wonders of the universe. All very immersive stuff.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the exhibition didn’t focus entirely on the media-friendly Higgs Boson, but also mentioned CERN’s less publicised work. This included dark matter – the invisible, undetectable stuff that theoretically accounts for the fact that we can’t find about 95.1% of the universe’s mass – and the imbalance between matter and antimatter² at the beginning of time that allowed stars and planets to condense from the Big Bang.

My younger self was screaming incoherently at this point.

Suddenly, the lights dimmed even further and five screens appeared on the walls and floor. What followed was six minutes of intense music, weird CGI-d images of fundamental particles zipping across the room and a female voice-over that sounded very similar to that scene in The Lord of the Rings. Needless to say, I felt exhausted afterwards.

Microcosm was next. This was a more conventional look at the evolution of CERN over the years, with a few areas disappointingly out of bounds for renewal. Nevertheless, it was very impressive, highlighting how incredible leaps forward in computing power have occurred there due to the sheer volume of data necessary to process. There were also mentions of the fact that the internet was actually created at CERN by Tim Berners-Lee which is pretty damn impressive. Well done Tim. After that, a few obligatory appearances from Brian Cox in the short films on show there and were all that were needed to satisfy my physics needs for the day.

There is, of course, more to Switzerland than just CERN, but I have very little understanding of anything of a geographical nature so it might be best to end there. More elaborate adventures (from less exotic locations) next time.

¹Never factoids. What the hell is a factoid? Is is somehow not quite valid enough to justify the “fact” moniker? Is it too inconsequential to regard it as a truth? Please justify yourselves! My spellchecker recognises it and it doesn’t even recognise “spellchecker”. Ho hum.

²For every normal particle, there is an antiparticle with the opposite charge that will annihilate with its partner producing a flash of energy. That bit of energy could have been you, if the laws of physics had been different.