May 24, 2006

Cool scientists missing from TV and movies

from - RSA

While on a cross-country plane ride the other day, I was reading the New York Times and ran across an article that, in passing, observed that there are no breakthrough movies or TV shows that present scientists as being cool. The article mentions The Godfather and The West Wing showing criminals and politicians as being gritty and cool. I'd add the innumerable shows and movies demonstrating the coolness of doctors, lawyers, police officers, fire fighters, soldiers, cowboys, and even, sometimes, business people. . .have I left anyone out?

Somehow scientists (including college professors like me) are never on such lists. And, really, there should be no expectation that they'll ever be in such highly publicized company. Why is that? I think there are a couple of reasons. First, there's very little in the way of drama in the average scientist's life that's specific to being a scientist. (Forensic scientists on CSI-related shows may seem to be an exception, but imagine if they were using identical techniques to determine the causes of cancer, without specific deadlines, without crimes, without specific bad guys, without overbearing bosses, and without the need to go interview people. . .you get the idea. It's the context, not mention the acting, that makes the stories compelling.) Scientists make incremental progress, occasionally a breakthrough, but if there's any drama, I think it goes on inside people's heads rather than in external events that might make for a good visual portrayal. Second, while the work of many scientists affects people's lives, it's not nearly as immediate an effect as the work of gangsters, cops, doctors, and even lawyers. If I do a good job in my work, no one's going to live or die or even go to jail; I'll write a paper that may gain me the respect of my peers and be possibly incomprehensible to the greater public.

I've become resigned to the belief that I'll never be a media celebrity. Such is life--I'll have to look elsewhere for happiness.

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Posted by RSA at May 24, 2006 01:08 PM
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