My friends at the UCSD Physics department were good looking, funny, social and bad ass mother fuckers. They were nothing like the characters of Big Bang Theory and that’s a problem.
My friends at the UCSD Physics department were awesome. We had fun ragers (one included a mud wrestling pit). My friends included Chris Burnham, a triathlete, Columbine Robinson who could be confused for a sorority girl with long legs and blond hair competing in crew, there was Alex Clemesha who was a bad ass surfer and Courtney Schatzman who had long blond hair, and just a total California babe look.
In my Electrical Engineering department we had Nevena Raculjic who may as well be a Serbian model and then there’s Brian Whiteacre, a national bartending champion and a UFC fighter. There was Andy Stewart who got a PhD from Princeton and built his own sail boat. David Stahnke who built with Andy a remote controlled submarine and went on to become a teacher and travelled the length of Mexico by motorcycle. We had Tom Driscoll who designed negative lenses (lenses that bend light backwards) and at the same time put on what I can only call the most epic parties and built huge art cars for Burning Man while looking like a Brad Pitt. Then there was Billy Hatfield who was in my fraternity and was certainly not at all socially awkward, especially in an Halloween outfit of Franzia Bag Wine with a fully functioning spigot.
The problem is not my friends and classmates, the problem is the Hollywood depiction of intelligence as nerdy, cowardly, weak and socially awkward like those in “Big Bang Theory” at best and completely insane like in “A Beautiful Mind” or “Pi” at worst. But that was not us, that was not Ben Juwono who is now a cartoonist for Dreamworks (ok, maybe Ben was nerdy, but he was not weak or awkward) or Tram Dang who can climb walls of any climbing gym while computing huge equations. The problem is that the world and Hollywood paints intelligence, engineering, science as dopey while the people involved in the field are anything but. Courtney Schatzman is not a dopey girl, she is a great looking California babe who goes on ships for months at a time working on climate change research. Billy Hatfield is not a nerd, he hikes up in mountains for days checking on earthquake sensors around California. Columbine is not some Mayim Bialik’s caricature of a biologist, she is an engineer working on telecommunication who looks like she could be in magazines. And these classmates of mine were not the exception, they are the norm. Eric Clark looked like an out of shape bro in a hate who likes sports and drinking cheap beer at a local bar but he is a brilliant mind and scientist (and was a pretty good chain-smoker) that no one would take for a physicist, all because of our faulty pre-conceptions. Ben Yukich could be on a cover of a motorcycle riding magazine with his stud earrings but he was a mad-man with equations.
The point is, we cannot take pride in shows like Big Bang Theory for showing smart people, because it doesn’t, it shows a caricature, a demeaning stereotype that does no-one any good. At a time when we need more engineers and scientists means we need to encourage people who have a talent, regardless of their hobbies or looks. Maybe we need to get actors to walk across the campus and interact with the science departments and act accordingly. Or maybe we need to stop these highly specialized majors so that actors and future executives can sit in a class with scientists. Because we are not weak, we are not nerdy, we are not socially awkward, we’re scientists and engineers, we’re divers, pilots and climbers and soccer players. Most importantly, we’re no different from anyone else and anyone can be just like us, even if you’re a jock, model or nerd.