Scientists: the same old villains and nerds

Villains and nerds – that’s what scientists are, if you believe the media. At least the “big screen.” Finding myself in a state of near exhaustion this past month, I’ve taken the opportunity to watch a few films on ‘Netflix.’ Two very different films seem to further cement the public’s perception of what scientists (and their lives) are like. We do not hold a flattering public image.

The first film was called “Rubberneck.” The synopsis, borrowed from imdb, is as follows:

Paul Harris works at a small research facility on the outskirts of Boston. After a weekend tryst with a co-worker leaves him wanting more, his unreciprocated desires gradually mold into an acute infatuation. When Danielle takes interest in a new scientist at the laboratory, Paul’s suppressed resentments and perverse delusions finally become unhinged, triggering a horrific course of events that mercilessly engulf a tortured past and fugitive present.

This, needless to say, represents the geek. The socially inept, awkward scientist, who fails to abide or even understand normal social discourse, is the anti-hero of this rather mediocre film. Sadly, at least from the standpoint of depicting life in the lab, the directors did a decent job. And if you were to ask my spouse, perhaps I do epitomize the dedicated but socially clueless researcher. But regardless of whether I fit the stereotype, I don’t think the protagonist resembles most scientists.

Film #2 was called “Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” (based on a bestselling novel by Peter Hoeg) and was a much bigger disappointment (beware of spoiler, in case you are tempted to see the film). Whereas Rubberneck didn’t raise expectations from the start, Smilla initially depicted rather heartwarming interactions between a half-Danish and half-Greenland Inuit woman with a 6 year-old Greenland-Inuit neighbor.

Online synopsis:

Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen is a 37 years old woman of Eskimo origin, who is living in Copenhagen. She is unmarried, unadapted, childless and irascible. One day her friend – 6 years old Esajas – falls down from the roof and is killed in what seems an accident. But Smilla believes he has been killed. Highly ranked people try to ‘convince’ her not to interfere, but she does not listen to them and tries to solve the crime. Her sense of snow leads her into a mystery with roots far back in time…

But from there, everything rolled downhill. I had hoped this would be a compelling drama-mystery, but in the end, a mysterious comet that landed on the Greenland ice a century earlier turned out to have mysterious energy properties that brought a long extinct fatal worm back into existence.

In this film, the ice was certainly thick, but the plot was thin, and the science was thinner yet. The villain was the owner/chief scientist of the mining company, who explained at the end that his goal was power, fame and wealth. He said this as evil oozed from the pores of his one-dimensional character.

Smilla, on the other hand, could survive third degree burns, humungous explosions and submersion in icy waters – not to mention long treks through snowy passages in Greenland. And the young woman, who was apparently unemployed and tossed out of school and university for bad behavior, had her own microscope in her Copenhagen apartment, where one assumes she purchased antibodies from Sigma and fixed samples with paraformaldehyde while cooking dinner.

Cynical? Hell yes. One thing is certain: with one film based out of the US and the other from Europe, neither continent gets any points for accurately depicting the lives of scientists.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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2 Responses to Scientists: the same old villains and nerds

  1. GMP says:

    From the point of making movies, most occupations (other than cops, lawyers, firefighters, and ER doctors) are really boring. I work in a computational field, and basically all I do is sit at my computer, surrounded by papers and books; I type and write, and occasionally I go teach a class, sit in a meeting listening to blowhards, or people come to see me in my office to talk about science.

    This is all boring as hell for someone the outside. I have brought my kids to work a few times; between doing the mundane things at home and my outwardly boring job, they must think I am the most boring person on earth. And they are right! But who cares? Our job is one of the mind, the work is not done outwardly. So I think it’s the best job ever but it does not lend itself to movie making. (I have had to do a photo shoot a few times for some high profile work, and photographers always want to shoot in a lab. Mine are offices with computers. What’s there to shoot? Working in a lab is probably better, things can blow up or smoke and there are people in white lab coats.)

    There is nothing better than doing science for a living. It just doesn’t lend itself to a Fast-and-Furious-like franchise. Most movies these days are stupid as hell anyway. (Btw, I know doctors cringe at the description of their work on TV. We scientists at least sometimes get to be villains.)

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I agree with some of your points, particularly that many interesting occupations don’t lend well to film depictions. However, I’m less concerned about showing what’s going on in the lab itself (or office, for that matter) than the fact that scientists are being stereotyped into nerd-geeks who can barely tie their own shoelaces and villains out to conquer the world. Cops on the other hand, are often portrayed as multi-dimensional and highly believable people in their personal lives (on film). Some are good family members, others are often divorced or struggling with personal problems. Others struggle over crossing into gray areas in their work. But at least they are a versatile bunch! As for scientists, the nerd-geeks are not necessarily boring, and the villains aren’t boring, but we are not seeing people with any depth. Cardboard cutout scientists…

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