Dynamist Blog

Science Glamour & DNA Style

The post below on DNA glamour was inspired in part by the research I did for my latest Atlantic column, which explores how CSI and Numb3rs have created a new glamorous archetype of the scientist. Here's the opening:

Even before Sputnik, scientists and policy makers worried that not enough Americans were studying science. In August 1957, two months before the Soviets launched their satellite, Science magazine published a survey of high-school students' images of scientists, conducted by Margaret Mead (yes, that one) and Rhoda Métraux. Students, they found, thought scientists were important. "Without science we would still be living in caves," was a common sentiment. But they didn't want to become scientists or (a question asked only of girls) to marry one. Scientists were just too weird.

A common pattern emerged from seemingly inconsistent descriptions:

The number of ways in which the image of the scientist contains extremes which appear to be contradictory—too much contact with money or too little; being bald or bearded; confined to work indoors, or traveling far away; talking all the time in a boring way, or never talking at all—all represent deviations from the accepted way of life, from being a normal friendly human being, who lives like other people and gets along with other people.

A lot has changed in the past 50 years, but the stereotypes remain. Scientists in the movies, noted a 1998 study in The Sciences, tend to "have two personality traits in common: obsessive natures and brilliant minds." Their detached objectivity makes them "dangerously compartmentalized and blind to frailty and emotion." Scientists appear most often in horror movies. Through childlike curiosity or God-defying hubris, they unleash destructive forces they can't control—Forbidden Planet's Monsters of the Id.

In works from Faust to Frankenstein to The Fly, scientific wonder quickly morphs into horror, turning desire into revulsion, as the scientist's beautiful illusion bursts into a nightmarish new reality. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein recalls the transformation:

Now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room, and continued a long time traversing my bedchamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep.

Frankenstein did not invent the fear of science; the novel found its audience because it dramatized anxieties that already existed. Although popular entertainment can, over the long run, shape public perceptions, it becomes popular in the first place only if it addresses preexisting hopes, fears, and fascinations.

That makes the extraordinary success of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which begins its eighth season this month, all the more remarkable. Unlike its direct spin-offs and numerous imitators, which are more-conventional cop melodramas, the original CSI has at its core an eccentric scientist: obsessive, brilliant, objective, and self-contained. "Oh, I have outlets," says Gil Grissom. "I read. I study bugs. I sometimes even ride roller coasters." What a nerd.

Following up on my earlier post, reader (and D Home blogger) Paige Phelps sends a link to this post from science blogger Carl Zimmer taking a pretty comprehensive look (with photos) at science-oriented tattoos. And scientist-blogger-knitter Grace Peng writes, Don't forget you can knit DNA designs on your socks. These are all geek-style, however, not DNA-as-general-icon. A better example of DNA style is this CD rack. We have two of them--functional and beautiful as well.

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