When I was in high school, I liked math. In 9th grade I took geometry with Ms. Johnson; 10th grade was Algebra II with Mrs. Duke; 11th grade was Trig/Analytic Geometry with Ms. Marlette; and my senior year was Calculus with Mr. Kroft. I earned As in those courses, except for Calculus, where I got a B for the year. I really enjoyed those subjects, especially geometry and algebra. Trig/Analyt was … interesting. I think I might have earned A’s solely on notebook quizzes. Then, I learned enough in calculus to squeak by with a barely-passing score on the AP exam.
Science classes in high school were fun, too. 9th grade was Earth/Space Science with Mr. Gaines; 10th grade was Honors Biology with Mr. Couch; 11th grade was Honors Chemistry with Ms. Thurman; and 12th grade was Anatomy/Physiology with Mr. Laird, and Physics with Mr. Wolf. I received overall A’s in these courses. I might have gotten a B during one quarter in Physics.
I usually didn’t consider myself a very superficial person. When it came to my studies, I focused on the grades. I studied as much as I could, and the classroom environment encouraged a pretty healthy social setting. I made really good friends in high school sometimes just because we ended up in the same classes together. But, I also fell victim to some of the stereotypes adolescence fosters. I made good grades. I took hard classes. I was a nerd/geek/dork/dweeb. By definition, those types of people weren’t very attractive. We were bookish, mousy, homely, unkempt. And we were proud of that. And, anyone who was stylish and “cool” just wasn’t as smart as we were. So there.
This notion carried over into college. The textbooks didn’t help. I remember my biology and math books containing features of the scientists and mathematicians who contributed to the texts. Pictures of big glasses and giant (greasy/frizzy) hair and 70s collars and halfway smiles, and the sickly pallor that could only be explained by extensive exposure to fluorescent lighting and not stepping outdoors for days convinced me that the smarties were not only unattractive, but eccentric and socially aloof. I’ve seen photos of Watson and Crick and Pierre Curie and the editor of my freshman calculus text. Einstein wasn’t exactly an Adonis. I’ve seen Bunsen and Beaker.
This isn’t to say there weren’t exceptions. One of the TAs for freshman biology was quite attractive. I had a classmate in a technical writing class who majored in molecular biology. He was HOTT. I never knew scientists could be so beautiful. I didn’t know brainies could make time for skiing and rock climbing and basketball and music and dating and good hair and smelling like masculinity, even when they’re doing research 80 hours a week. They can and they do. Understanding this was a major breakthrough for me.
Then it became an obsession. I pored through my textbooks like celebrity gossip magazines. I looked at my professors. I looked at my classmates. I took note of the world away from academia. I observed the nerds who stood out and surprisingly, not all of them looked like frumpy hermits. Some of them are cute and have really pleasant personalities. I want to be their friend. Here are some examples:
Brian Greene, physicist. He’s a major promoter of String Theory. Look at his great hair and classic, ribbed sweater. Look, he’s also outdoors, by the coast, soaking in some rays. It’s hard to tell simply by looking at him that his mind is working to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity.
Danica McKellar, mathematician. You might have known her as Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years. Interesting thing about this show is that my 8th grade Algebra teacher loved it, especially Ben Stein’s character, and she would talk about him all the time. So I can’t think of this show without thinking about Algebra, and then an actor from its cast is actually quite a reputable, well-known mathie. PhD. She’s published a couple of books about style and math, where she suggests what stilettos and lipstick to wear as well as making math more accessible to teenage girls (and anyone else).
Becky Middleton, rocket scientist. This photo was not taken in a vacuum, but in a simulated vortex, also known as a subway car. After BYU she spent some time working at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California. Her engineering background may very well be her secret to her curly hair. How could that not make sense? This photo doesn’t explain why she’s laughing, but the chances it could be about Excel spreadsheets are pretty high. This picture proclaims nerdiness will never go out of style.
So, my impressions have changed. Scientists are dressing better. They’re getting braces. They’re getting leak-free pens for their shirt pockets. Sometimes I wish I could make that work. They’re smiling; they’re flirting. They’re confronting the world’s problems but not without noticing how attractive you are. And, they’re smooth about it. Science and math have definitely evolved. 20 years ago I would not have guessed they could be so … glamorous? Nerdiness has always been and always will be cool. But now, it happens to check itself in a mirror before leaving for the lab.