Nerdom is Sexy

In my coming of age, I’ve noticed two contradictory things. Adolescence is when a child begins to gain the ability to think for one’s self. It is also when a child stops wanting to think.

What I mean by this is that it is when children enter adolescence that they seem to be able to explore the world more without too much hand-holding from their parents, and yet, peer pressure seems to make it uncool to use one’s brain. The joy of knowledge has been lost.

The reason I bring this topic up is that I believe, as Carl Sagan did (who, by the way, was the sexiest nerd ever) that skepticism and wonder belong together. I suppose that wonder, derived from a scientific understanding of the world, will come easier to humans than skepticism which I why I’m starting off Critical Thinking 101 with it.

A chapter in Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark described the differences he noticed between the younger children, with their inborn curiosity still flourishing, and the older high school seniors.

Every now and then, I’m lucky enough to teach a kindergarten or first-grade class. Many of these children are natural-born scientists – although heavy on the wonder side and light on the skepticism side. They’re curious, intellectually vigorous. Provocative and insightful questions bubble out of them. They exhibit enormous enthusiasm. I’m asked follow-up questions. They’ve never heard of the notion of a “dumb question.”

But when I talk to high school seniors, I find something different. They memorize “facts.” By and large, though, the joy of discovery, the life behind those facts, has gone out of them. They’ve lost much of the wonder, and gained very little skepticism. They’re worried about asking “dumb” questions; they’re willing to accept inadequate answers; they don’t pose follow-up questions; the room is awash with sidelong glances to judge, second-by-second, the approval of their peers.

I’ve observed something quite similar as I deal with both age groups rather regularly.

Every other weekend I volunteer at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to share my knowledge of science with elementary to lower middle school kids who were brought along by their parents. I can see the spark of curiosity in all of their eyes, and I’ve even seen the spark re-kindled in the eyes of some adults who can now enjoy science without the homework and tests and awful classroom environment. But an audience which I don’t see very much of are the teenagers. Younger children are taken there by their parents, and adults come along with them, but teenagers… aren’t interested in that stuff, it seems.

I also get to spend a lot of time with teenagers. As Carl Sagan pointed out, there’s the constant need of approval from their peers. Let’s face it, it’s not very popular amongst teens to be interested in school subjects. I notice that since science is a school subject when I say I’m interested in it I become labelled “a smart people.” It would seem that the “smart people” are outsiders to what I suppose are the “normal people” who vastly out-populate the outsiders. The problem that the knowledge which leads a human to wonder seems to face, from Carl Sagan’s observation and from mine, is peer pressure to not have any desire to have knowledge.

I think that the de-valuation of knowledge greatly takes away from the human experience.

Consider the following.

Besides the sun, the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is 4.6 light years away meaning this is 4.6 times the distance light travels in one year. Light is fast. Very fast. So fast that it can travel around the Earth 3 times in a single second.

Now that you have an idea of how far away the nearest star is, consider the fact that the nearest galaxy is several million light years away from our galaxy.

Consider the fact that light has a finite speed and takes time to get from place to place. This means that for every light year you look out into space, you look one year back in time. When you look at an object millions of light years away, you’re looking millions of years back in time.

That’s just me getting started on wondrous facts I’ve learned from astronomy. Already it should give us some perspective of what our place is in this vast, humongous, insanely big universe we live in. I could talk about facts learned from evolution, physics, all sorts of things which science has revealed to us that we wouldn’t have otherwise figured out.

And those are just facts. The methods used to find these facts out I think you’d find are clever and exciting. Knowing what we know is amazing, but how we know it is just as fascinating if not more.

But, we need wonder and skepticism both. You could easily take wonder from these “facts”:

  1. When you write positive words on water bottles the ice crystals look prettier than the ice crystals formed by words written negatively. If you think positively, the water in your body will give you better health.
  2. Quantum mechanics shows that sending out certain thoughts will attract those things you think about from the universe. Wanting makes it so.
  3. Your species was specially created by a loving god.

But these are not facts. They have no scientific evidence to support them whatsoever (and as a bit of a side note, they are more egocentric whereas the actual scientific facts I shared earlier make us feel slightly smaller in the immenseness of the universe).

How to think critically and skeptically is something we’ll get into as this blog progresses, but never forget that knowledge can be pretty amazing stuff. Just because your peers tell you learning is uncool doesn’t mean that it is.

Nerdom is sexy.

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  1. July 4, 2008 at 3:45 pm —

    “Already it should give us some perspective of what our place is in this vast, humongous, insanely big universe we live in.”

    ‘Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the street to the chemists’, but that’s just peanuts to space!’
    I typed that from memory, is that crossing the line from sexy to just too nerdy?

  2. July 4, 2008 at 3:46 pm —

    Haha. I love that quote. I was going to include it… but then I didn’t. 🙁

    Still a good quote. 🙂

  3. July 4, 2008 at 3:54 pm —

    A very good quote, indeed. But, then, everything Douglas Adams ever wrote is a good quote. That man was amazing.
    Awesome post, by the way. You seem to have just the kind of attitude to life that Carl Sagan was encouraging in Demon Haunted World.
    How did you come across scepticism/skepchick and Carl Sagan (etc…)?

  4. July 4, 2008 at 4:49 pm —

    One day I was in the library at the University of Denver perusing through the magazines. I saw something on the cover of one of them about quantum mechanics, a topic that interests me, and I picked it up. That magazine happened to be The Skeptical Inquirer and as soon as I’d read a description of a trick Houdini once did to show a friend that mediums were simply fooling with him, I was hooked on skepticism.

    After that I came across The Skeptic’s Dictionary, a resource which I still use to this day because it is completely awesome, and the Internets just connected me to all the other fun places out there.

  5. viccro
    July 4, 2008 at 6:44 pm —

    As great as Carl Sagan is, I think that Richard Feynman might own in both sexy- and nerdy-nesses. After all, he could play bongos. =D

    You’ve hit upon the biggest issue that I think most of us have with science in the classroom…it’s all memorization. Even in upper level classes (and especially AP levels), all they want is for the students to pass the tests. I had, as recently as 10th grade, stupid exams over how organized my binder was; these were followed by even stupider matching/multiple choice tests the next day which required solely memorization. I think that a lot of people get so very into the habit of taking in information for the next day or two, without any sense of perspective or desire to put the pieces together, that when the time comes to think they are far beyond the possibility of being able to restart their brains. Physics nearly killed most of my peers after a year of biology. Can you guess which one required problem solving and comprehension? And then the next question is: can you guess which class demanded a heavier curve? (I also have major issues with the idea of curving tests…sure it’s necessary in some cases, but it often leads to laziness. And tells people to be the squeaky wheel, no matter what the situation.)
    I’m glad that people like you are able to get into positions where sharing a love of understanding, not *just* learning, the knowledge available is possible. It seems that you have to love the knowledge at hand before you can wander off into the unknown with as great zeal; that’s how scientists are born.

  6. July 4, 2008 at 7:01 pm —

    Viccro: You’re exactly right about the way science is taught, at least in my experience. I just sat my A levels and in the 2 years of classes leading up to them, any actual learning was kind of frowned on. I was the only one in my classes who actually enjoys pursuing any kind of interest in science outside of school, so I used to ask a lot of questions. Usually, I was met with ‘You don’t need to know that until university’. Unfortunately for me, I find it hard to just remember something, I need to understand it first. We are encouraged just to memorise word for word definitions, which could be jolly well meaningless. So when the results come, most of my class will get a decent grade without much of an understanding of the stuff they had to actually learn.
    Oh well. It was the lack of help from my teacher which led me to the internet for answers, and then on to the SGU podcasts, which changed my life. So, it wasn’t all bad.

  7. viccro
    July 4, 2008 at 7:08 pm —

    I definitely had the ‘you don’t need to know that yet’ response a lot…I had asked, at one point, about the fact that part of our 7th grade version of the definition of a cell was that it had a nucleus. Then a video we watched said that red blood cells had none. Was it a misnomer? Or were we being mislead?! I asked the teacher who replied by saying “Oh, um…I’m not too s…shhhh! Don’t confuse the rest of the class!” I agree that definitions are rather pointless, especially as a lot of oversimplification is often needed to develop them (see Phil Plait on defining ‘planet’)! Ah well, it clearly didn’t hurt all of us; I sort of worry though about the others, who didn’t care to learn the difference, or even to acknowledge that there was one, who now want to be doctors.

  8. July 4, 2008 at 10:33 pm —

    Rystefn supports it and encourages more. Nerddom is sexy and science is hot. Also, the universe is more full of wonder to me than any imaginary idea I’ve ever yet come across.

  9. July 4, 2008 at 10:43 pm —

    Good old Carl Sagan… As a middle-school aged (early 90’s) kid I remember going to the local library where I would generally pick up books from the three topics that interested me the most: history, astronomy, and the paranormal. I knew who Carl Sagan was because I had a vhs copy of an extended newscast on the Voyager 2 Uranus flyby where Sagan was the guest scientist. Also, my aunt had bought me a copy of “Pale Blue Dot” so I knew that Carl was a fantastic writer. How fortunate was I that the Dewey decimal system placed Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World” in the paranormal section. I must’ve checked that book out a half a dozen times and never checked out a book on ufos or ghosts ever again. From there I discovered the Skeptical Inquirer and the rest, as they say, was history.

    I certainly owe a lot to Carl Sagan and I have little doubt that many others here do as well. But in regards to who was sexier I must admit that it would be hard for me to choose between him and Richard Feynman 🙂

  10. July 5, 2008 at 2:18 am —

    HAIL SAGAN \m/ (>_<) \m/

  11. July 5, 2008 at 9:52 am —

    Stephen Jay Gould FTW!

  12. Zambiglione
    July 5, 2008 at 11:37 am —

    I used to be a substitute teacher at public schools and I was constantly amazed by the intellectual laziness of many teachers as well as students. I often heard curious students told that they didn’t need to know something yet. Heaven forbid someone learn something! I was once subbing in a team taught math class where they were learning the Pythagorean theorem and had a problem where they had to determine the third side knowing the area and perimeter of squares attached to the other two sides. As they did not have a formula for this the other teacher told them to skip it, even after I offered to demonstrate how to do it. That day I started looking for a new job.
    On a side note you chicas here at Teen Skepchick are completely awesome and restore my hope for humanity.

    PS: Everyone knows the sexiest nerd ever is Neil Gaiman. He has the hair and was in a rock band. Although Carl Sagan is pretty damn sexy.

  13. marjasieni
    July 6, 2008 at 12:26 pm —

    I guess I’m sort of lucky to be a student in the IB program. It’s tough, but our class is really nerdy and highly skeptical. The IB also contains a class that specializes in teaching critical thinking. It’s called “Theory of Knowledge” and it is basically a study of how knowledge is obtained, what is knowledge, and how to seperate true knowledge from all the crap. I think this should become a standard subject in all schools.

  14. July 6, 2008 at 12:32 pm —

    I think this should become a standard subject in all schools.


  15. July 6, 2008 at 3:36 pm —

    Several female physics students of my acquaintance have told me that the cosmologist Max Tegmark is smokin hawt. He’s also an unabashed nerd, as The Relativity Song demonstrates.

    My own “you don’t need to know that” moment actually happened with a librarian, rather than a teacher. In the first grade, I was gonzo for Leonardo da Vinci. I had read something about him, or seen something on PBS, and I wanted to know it all! So, naturally, I went to my school library and asked the librarian for a book about Leonardo da Vinci.

    “First graders don’t read books like that,” she told me.

    I was extraordinarily lucky that I had a few science teachers who were willing to accept that the book was wrong (the ones we used in eighth grade were particularly bad). However, I also had several in the math and science departments who refused to deviate from the textbook’s order, or let us use things we weren’t supposed to know until the next term. Horrifying place, school was.

    I had asked, at one point, about the fact that part of our 7th grade version of the definition of a cell was that it had a nucleus. Then a video we watched said that red blood cells had none. Was it a misnomer? Or were we being mislead?! I asked the teacher who replied by saying “Oh, um…I’m not too s…shhhh! Don’t confuse the rest of the class!”

    I think schoolbooks suffer from a disease where they have to have key terms in bold print with single-sentence definitions which can be regurgitated on quizzes. The problem is that many scientific terms don’t have such definitions, or at least, such a definition makes sense after the concept has already been introduced and explored. For example, our eighth-grade “integrated science” books defined an atom as, “The smallest piece of an element possessing all the properties of that element.” I’m quoting from memory, but that’s pretty close to verbatim.

    Then, a chapter later, we learn the properties of metals, so that we can list them on the quiz. Metals are electrical conductors, we’re told, which is fine; they are also malleable (able to be hammered flat without shattering) and ductile (able to be drawn into thin wires). But wait a minute — individual atoms can’t be hammered flat or drawn into wires!

    Because the definitions were invented to be regurgitated, they don’t fit together.

  16. Amanda
    July 7, 2008 at 8:14 am —

    Great post, Elles! You are, of course, right- nerdom is sexy. Anyone who doesn’t know that is missing out.

  17. July 8, 2008 at 1:56 am —

    Yeah, science class in High School is not so good. Though, due to my ability to memorize facts easily and knowledge of science before I go to those classes, I easily get A+ 🙂

  18. July 8, 2008 at 2:16 am —

    And I know how it feels to you guys who got answers as this: you don’t have to know it yet, and other variations of it. It is really annoying and sometimes, I search for solution the problem for weeks until I find it. I remember in fifth grade one question that particularly stuck with me for years is that why does the textbook says that the energy level at the end of every period in the periodic table when energy levels doesn’t coinside with the number of elements in each period after the second one. The teachers kind of shrugged it off, and answered in the wrong way. I got to high school and having the internet, my curiosity peaked again and found the answer, which had to do with orbitals. In my 10th grade, I asked the question even though I knew the answer, just to see what the chemistry teacher could knew or could come up with, and in a way, my attempt to educate other classmates the complexity of the atoms. The teacher never gave appropriate answer, and the long windedness of the discussion seemed to annoy other students, since I was being persistent about it. She told me another teacher could answer it. I hate it when they avoid a question.

  19. July 8, 2008 at 2:22 am —

    woops, I meant to say above ” the textbook says the energy level of the elements at the end of the period in the periodic table is filled when the number of electrons in an energy level doesn’t coincide with the number of elements in each period after the second one”

  20. Anti_Annie
    July 10, 2008 at 4:27 am —

    “The joy of knowledge has been lost.”

    I can’t tell you how true that is and how much it annoys me. I’m now entering the 11th grade, and I’m extremely excited to be taking Theory of Knowledge, a class that asks you about what you know and more importantly, how you came to know it. Most of the other kids are groaning about the essays and having to get up at 5 in the morning to get to school. I think it’s a small price to pay for this kind of class. I mean, critical thinking questions and debate are the type of thing I need to wake up in the morning!

  21. Anti_Annie
    July 10, 2008 at 4:32 am —

    Oops, didn’t see that marjasieni had the definition of IB’s TOK. 😛
    By the way, sexy physicists?
    I’m sorry, but my heart belongs to Brian Greene. 🙂

  22. viccro
    July 10, 2008 at 10:30 am —

    @Anti Annie: String physicist? Zombie Feynman requires brains. =P

  23. vreify
    July 10, 2008 at 1:08 pm —

    I always wanted to take TOK in high school…sounded like the dream class.

  24. July 19, 2008 at 4:18 am —

    Another fantastic post, Elles.

    But, please, dear readers, don’t make me choose between Sagan and Feynman. They were both incredibly sexy wonders of the universe, and in the hearts and minds of those of us who think the way we do, they are immortalised.

    Oh, and let’s not forget Lisa Randall. Rawr.

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