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.
CSI has not only remained a top-rated show through seven seasons; it has had real-world consequences. Police and prosecutors complain of a “CSI effect” that leads juries to demand more physical evidence than they used to expect. College officials use the same term to describe spiking enrollment in forensic-science programs.
CSI’s success also fostered a less-probable hit: Numb3rs, beginning its fourth season, the first detective show featuring a math prodigy as hero and algorithms as high-tech weapons. Enthusiastically accepting the pitch for Numb3rs, a studio executive declared, “This show will do for math what CSI has done for science.”
What these shows have done is to make science and math alluring—without invoking an imagined future, an alternative reality, or travel to distant worlds. The characters live and work in recognizable, realistic versions of contemporary Las Vegas and Pasadena. The shows invent no new physics or biology and posit no conspiracies hiding alien invasions or ancient space technologies; they seem to portray science as it really exists.