“I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer.” – Neil Armstrong

September 3, 2012

Neil Armstrong, the legendary Neil Armstrong has passed away. A man who brought space to the masses, a man that was unashamedly a geek. In fact, his exact words, back in 2000, were:

“I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace and propelled by compressible flow.”

Truly poetic and exactly what we’d expect a man of his era to say. Unfortunately, it has brought the same old stereotypes back to the surface. Engineers are nerds. Engineers are men in white socks. Engineering, physics and science is the hard stuff.

I wonder what percentage of people even understand half of what he said? It was recently demonstrated to me that a horrifyingly large percentage of university-educated adults don’t know when to use parentheses in a mathematical equation, let alone having heard the terms differentiation, integration, differential equations or Laplace transforms!

There is a reason that the quote is generally truncated after the word “engineer.”

The truth is, his quote is accurate – given the generation he was from. Back in the day, NASA very much was the serious, conservative organisation with stereotypical engineers. Having said that, it surprised me to see the actual commentary in response to this revitalised quotation. “Neil Armstrong was cooler than you,” says one website.

The truth is that NASA’s image has gotten a major facelift in the past few weeks. Most people have heard of Mohawk Guy, that is, 32 year old Bobak Ferdowsi of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who directed the landing of the Mars rover Curiosity. The YouTube video of the landing, featuring his mohawk and star shapes shaved into his scalp, went viral, with Ferdowsi’s Twitter followings going through the roof. He following it up by appearing on an American game show and even getting marriage proposals.

And as I ponder the issue some more, I realise that I have heard of differential equations somewhat recently in mainstream(ish) media: on an episode of The Big Bang Theory. Each new episode of The Big Bang Theory, featuring physicists Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter, easily wins an audience of at least 15m viewers in it’s native home of the US, not to mention many more millions watching via imports and downloads across the world. Is it possible that all these people know what differential equations are? No way.

There’s a growing school of thought that says that geek is the new sexy, with Britain’s latest leading men, Matt Smith, Andrew Garfield, Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Radcliffe supposedly at the forefront. But the issue remains the same. It’s only men. We like the men, don’t get me wrong, but where has the geek chic gone? Where are the women?

Cultural stereotypes are changing with every passing day. It’s great to see this happen as diversity slowly seeps into the mix, but somehow it never seems to break the gender barrier. Can you think of a modern day geek chic icon? I’m coming up blank.

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  1. |[P]| says: September 3, 2012

    I guess it depends somewhat on how you are defining geek (which is opening a whole can of worms). So long as you’re including actors as geeks, there are plenty of female options insofar as they have a genuine interest/involvement in geek culture. Certainly within online circles Felicia Day is generally hailed as the quintessential geek chic icon. Tina Fey, Rosario Dawson, Zooey Deschanel?

    However I must admit I definitely struggle to think of British options though.


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