‘But you’re one of the we‘my disbelieving high school friend sulked as we pretended to pay attention to the rounds. “How can you not have watched it?” That’s right: With the exception of a half-watched movie late at night as an undergraduate, I’ve never seen Star Trek. I think my teenage comrade was so outraged because we were both connected to a movement that also appears repeatedly in science: nerd culture.
Although the words geek and nerd seem to have derogatory origins, back when I was in high school they were more likely names worn as a badge of honor, although being one inevitably placed you on the spot. in a particular clique. Some say that geeks and nerds are different: the former has monomania on a particular favorite subject, and the latter is a studious individual with broader passions – as long as it is math or science. I’m not sure I really understand where the line is between them, especially if it’s obvious I’m a chemistry nerd, but I could also happily identify as a cross-coupling geek.
Our friendships seemed to stem from the fact that someone loved intricate details as much as we did.
Perhaps this lack of precision is due to overlapping personality traits. The group of school friends “one of us” was made up of people who all had strong but different interests: some liked anime, some liked science fiction, I liked science. When I wasn’t interested in series 5 of Naruto, and my friend wasn’t worried about the effects of acetylcholine at the neuromuscular junction, we didn’t mind. Our friendships seemed to stem from the fact that someone loved intricate details as much as we did. Perhaps being fascinated by the details of complex fantasy worlds has some similarities to discovering and exploiting the secrets of the universe in a laboratory. After all, the structures and mechanisms that organic chemists imagine and mentally manipulate are interpretations of the strange quantum realm by the human imagination, requiring a lot of creative thinking. And it’s influential: Scientific and technological progress happens when disbelief is suspended. Apart from scholarly dogma, what can we do that has never been done before?
Naturally, a geek’s passion for anything fictitious will spill over into his work. I recently discovered, to my delight, that my colleagues have a fleet of automation equipment named after classic sci-fi artificial intelligences. I particularly like ‘Kryten’ and ‘Holly’ as references to the cult space comedy Red dwarf, a show that I watched and love. Unfortunately, it is more common for me to spend time awkwardly laughing because of my misunderstanding of the mid-seminar jokes of Star wars, Game Of Thrones and Phineas and Ferb (Whatever).
Including pop culture commentary in lectures comes with a risk: the sudden realization that your knowledge is not as up-to-date as you thought. I sympathized with college friends who were quickly brought down to earth by their spirits Monty Python Where Friends reference being greeted with blank looks by Gen Z students. Even when I was a graduate student teaching assistant, a few years older than most undergraduates, I encountered a gap between us in finding out that they were all listening to extremely popular music by artists I had never heard of. No wonder they didn’t understand my The Simpsons jokes.
As confusing as it may be, the love of fiction inspires science as does interdisciplinary cross-fertilization. Consumer gadgets like hoverboards and voice-activated assistants seem to have arisen from the idea that since 2021, surely they should have been invented by now. Likewise, discoveries in chemistry regularly arise from imagining something new and then making it happen. Eric Drexler thought of tiny nanobots that could self-replicate and make other nanodevices: philosophies that are put into practice today by supramolecular chemists. Smart androids have been pictured in stories since the turn of the 20th century, but now various companies are developing mobile lab robots that can learn more about their surroundings, but also the chemical reactions they perform. And famous, August Kekulé was said to have been inspired by his literal dream of an ouroboros to understand the structure of benzene.
Referring to cult media in a group has the potential to be exclusive, but more often than not, these excitable comments bring people together. Maybe that’s because geeks are the most welcoming of the cliques of school kids – vibrant, bubbly, and enthusiastic, even if you don’t quite understand what turns them on. While it has the potential to morph into babysitting, the geek set is generally demographically diverse and particularly neurodiversity-friendly. Their references are akin to quoting obscure ideas of science, mathematics or philosophy outside the domain. For a geek, that’s just another thing to be excited about.