Fine Structure

All Physicists are Nerds

Zapperz recently wrote a short post examining the stereotypical intersection[1] of "nerd" and "physicist" based on a newspaper article that described a teenage party-goer who dressed up as a "physicist" and won a "Most Nerdy" prize for his participation.

Let's get this out of the way first: I enjoy a good costume party as much as the next guy and I have had my share of absurdly stereotypical costumes for said parties. There's no problem with people dressing as stereotypical physicists at these events - people will always imitate what they perceive. The problem is, of course, the perception that physicists are all nerds. One hopes that by the time someone is already a physicist they've gotten past this misconception (or embraced it, if that's your style). I don't think many professional physicists actually feel belittled by this stereotype but it's not exactly harmless either.

Perception is an important part of inspirational development, which is to say who or what inspires you is important in deciding what you want to do. I can't imagine that the perceived antisocial guy (yes, gender bias as well) who consistently gets picked on is much to look up to. Fortunately science blogs are increasing in number and, with some effort, a young student looking for inspiration might just find some entirely interesting and socially adept scientist (there are more of them than you think) to lead them in the right direction. Not to mention the sheer number of physics personalities out there these days, either biographical or, uh, actually alive.

So we'll make some predictions to conclude. I have no data, but I've heard that the number of students pursuing science degrees was declining (though Chad Orzel just graduated the largest Physics class at his institution "in recent memory"). I predict a rebound for science students overall in the next couple of years - males graduates will rebound past recent levels and female graduates, partially driven by some really excellent women bloggers in the sciences, will jump to never-before-seen levels. I'll try to come up with some data to support both past performance as well as upcoming results in the coming months.

[1] We could get into a not-entirely-different discussion about "nerd" as a positive term aiding self-identification for those people who find themselves inexplicibly fascinated by wizards[2], comic books[2] and twenty-sided dice[2]. For the purposes of this post we'll accept the stereotypical use of the term "nerd" as someone without significant skill in social interaction for lack of a better word.

[2] Vast generalization.

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