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Last week, podcaster and Chicago radio producer Jimmy Mac covered the topic of being called a nerd on The ForceCast. His position was that the term nerd is derogatory and shouldn’t be used to describe fans of Star Wars. I couldn’t disagree more. 

The crowd at Wikipedia have defined “nerd” as “a term that refers to a social perception of a person who avidly pursues intellectual activities, technical or scientific endeavors, esoteric knowledge, or other obscure interests, rather than engaging in more social or conventional activities.” That got me thinking. Based on that, why shouldn’t we embrace the term nerd?

My heroes have, for the most part, been largely from the scientific, engineering, and creative communities. Many of them come from the large group of scientists, engineers, and technicians who came together and put a man on the moon in the 1960s. Those same scientists and engineers saved three astronauts when Apollo 13 catastrophically failed en route to the second planned lunar landing.

Even today, the qualifications to be an astronaut include a bachelor's degree in engineering, biological science, physical science or mathematics, as well as at least three years of related professional experience (graduate work or studies) and an advanced degree.

Wikipedia continues to explore the etymology of nerdom by describing the term’s origins with Dr. Seuss, Philip K. Dick, and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Dr. Seuss is legendary in his own right, Philip K. Dick developed the concept of Blade Runner and other science-fiction classics, and MIT is a hotbed of scientific and technological research that has produced at least 76 Nobel Laureates, 50 National Medal of Science recipients, and 35 MacArthur Fellows.

Albert Einstein singlehandedly expanded the understanding of our universe with his theories on relativity, progressing on centuries of scientific exploration from intellectual and esoteric thinkers before him. Science fiction as developed by Isaac Asimov (a scientist and writer), Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek), and George Lucas (noted for his technical innovation) is derived from these advances and evolves with the technology explored by today’s science and engineering communities.  Without nerds, I doubt science fiction or Star Wars would exist in its current form.

In a world where some kids idolize movie stars and sports figures, I find great solace in celebrating great thinkers. Nerds – the intellectuals, the scientists, the engineers, those with obscure interests – aren’t considered cool because they don’t get the hot chicks, don’t slug baseballs over the wall 400 feet away, don’t score the winning touchdown, and don’t snort cocaine off a hooker’s butt like Charlie Sheen seems so fond to do. Despite those supposed shortcomings, nerds have very stable lives and help to save others every day. Nerds develop body armor to send to our soldiers, engineer seat belts and restraint systems to keep people safe in moving vehicles, and created pacemakers and artificial hearts to extend and improve quality of life.  Nerds may not be cool, but they're much more useful to society, and the current resurgence in exploring nerd and geek culture is a tribute to that.

Any scientific advance, including those that allow us to explore this very topic, are due greatly to nerds. Nerds may not earn millions of dollars –Bill Gates and Steve Jobs notwithstanding – but the world owes them a debt that can never be repaid.

Money can’t buy happiness, unlike my constantly expanding knowledge of the universe around me. Nerds understand what makes the world go ‘round, and I am proud to be among their ranks.


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Phil Plait posted on his Bad Astronomy blog about an infographic, which led me to look a little deeper.  The site has to scale infographics detailing the atmosphere and the oceans.  Teachers, please find a way to print and display these.  You would have had to pry me off these with a spatula when I was a kid.

Earth's Atmosphere Top to Bottom
Tallest Mountain to Deepest Ocean Trench
 
Such great work.

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