Thursday, June 30, 2005

In Defence Of Nerds,Geeks and Science

Warning: This is a largely unfunny blog (of course, the question of whether my other blogs are funny or not is an open one). Occasionally, I may punctuate my writings with blogs like these. Please bear with me, Gentle Reader.

A friend of mine from college told me about this conversation he had with a girl (not an engineer) he had just met,which set me thinking (no,there's nothing wrong with your vision; engineers occasionally make contact with non-engineer members of the opposite sex too). It went something like this:

Girl: So what are you into, other than your work?
Friend: Well, I like to read, play badminton and I listen to lots of music....
Girl:That's nice. Anything else?
Friend: Weeelllll, I like physics too....
Girl (shocked): EWWWWW!!!Don't say that in public!
Friend (more than a little disconcerted): Oh,where you come from, is physics the word for, ummm,you know,the F word?
Girl: Oh no,it's worse than that. It means you're a nerd (pronounced with extreme distaste).
Friend: But I like physics!!!
Girl: Maybe, but don't tell anyone until you know them well. You see, it makes for a bad first impression.

There you go,people. I was disturbed when I heard this, for I have had similar experiences too. For example, when I tell people I like reading Carl Sagan's books, the immediate reaction is: you read books on science for entertainment?
What is it about science that makes most non-scientific (I know that's a bad adjective,but if you think it's easy coming up with adjectives,let's see you do it) people cringe? Of course, the obvious answer is that this is precisely why they are non-scientific. But I don't buy that; we don't think art,or accounts,or history are swear words. Of course, the above mentioned girl may just be a brainless delinquent (point to ponder: aren't delinquents already brainless?), but this is not an isolated case. And why is anyone who happens to like his/her work and spend a lot of time on it branded a nerd/geek?I believe this is prevalent in non-technical fields too. Why are they dismissed as not having 'lives'? Let me try to answer the questions I have raised.
First,let me deal with the question of science. Why do people in general dislike science so much? I believe this may be because they don't understand science. I'm sure that when you go into the intricacies of other fields, there maybe many things that we may not understand easily;things that may require an aptitude for that particular subject. But in the case of science (especially maths,since I believe we don't encounter actual science until after 10th standard), this dislike is developed in many people right from school.To a large extent, this may be because the right teachers,who know exactly what science is about, are not present. In general, we dislike (and fear,to some extent) things we don't understand. Think about it, and you shall see that this is true to a large extent. Why do we dislike some people? Because we do not understand the their actions; their motivations to do some of the things they do. Similarly, I believe science is disliked because people do not, in a fundamental way, understand what science is really about. Most people look upon science as a subject they didn't like in school; a subject they're glad to have left behind. Therefore, inevitably, the question arises: what is science really about? Science strives to understand Nature, to unravel the workings of the universe we live in. Sounds huge? Yes, it is. It is a quest that will never end, but it is a quest that is worth undertaking not just for the goal alone,but for the sheer thrill of the quest itself. Isn't it an absolutely wonderful idea that three simple laws govern the motion of any object in the universe (until convincingly proved otherwise, of course)? Isn't trying to understand such principles a worthy task? Let me tell you, I feel absolutely privileged that I understand, however rudimentarily, these all-encompassing laws of Nature. It fills me with an almost religious awe; of reverence for the universe; that it is described by laws so simple and yet so elegant. Carl Sagan has given this feeling a name in his book 'Contact' (yes, the movie is based on this book), he calls it the feeling of the numinous. The closest I have felt to nature was not when I went to Ooty or Goa; but when I first understood Einstein's principle of equivalence. Why? Because it describes the very fabric of the universe. When I first had that insight, when I had that 'moment of clarity', as scientists often refer to it, I was so excited I had to get up and walk around the room a few times before I could calm down. Truly, there is real joy in understanding.
But is this joy privy only to scientifically minded people? Of course not. Any person, with a little effort and the right books and/or teacher, can easily grasp the basics. But before that, he/she must first dismiss any pre-conceived notions about science and approach the subject, in the true scientific spirit, with an open mind. It is only then that the dislike will fade.
Now, on nerds and geeks. I understand that the so-called nerd/geek is one who is totally absorbed in his work and has no time/inclination for anything much else. But why does he spend so much time on it? the answer is easy, because he likes, nay, loves his work. Isn't he lucky, the nerd, that he derives so much joy from his work? The immediate reply to that would be that he misses out on so many other things in life. But look at it from his point of view. He doesn't need the so-called 'other things' in life. He is happy with it. Of course, he may have little social skills, or lack the ability to make small talk, but these are minor things when compared to the pleasure that he gets from his work. How many of us can really claim to love our work, to love it with a passion that is all-consuming?
In physics, there is something called a frame of reference, which is basically an obsevation point. Why limit ourselves to only our frame of reference? Why don't we understand that there are frames of reference other than ours? So, people, before we dismiss a person as a nerd/geek, I think it would be wise to consider the situation from his/her point of view. If that person is more or less happy, then what right do we have to judge them, to look down upon them? As Christ said (atleast, I think it was Christ), let him without sin be the first to cast the stone.
All things considered, there is a much more fundamental and profound reason why I am such a die-hard 'nerd/geek' supporter. It is this: come exam time, without them, what would we do? :)